Monday, August 18, 2014

Whole Lotta Bergman: Winter Light

The shorter Ingmar Bergman's movies become, the more they are starting to seem like plays or cinematic exercises than full-on movies. Winter Light, at a scant 81 minutes, is a perfect example of that trend.

The last movie I watched, Through a Glass Darkly, was very much like a play in the sense that it took place in an around a single house on an island -- a play-like setting if ever there was one. But at least in that film there were a number of exterior scenes. Winter Light, the second of three films that Bergman retroactively labeled an informal trilogy exploring faith, manages to compress things even further. It does have about one outdoor scene, but the rest are interiors -- perhaps a reflection of how the characters are looking inward as they struggle with their own core beliefs.

I knew Winter Light might seem long for an 81-minute movie when it spent its opening 13 minutes on just a church service. Yes, this service does introduce the main characters, but only by showing us their faces as they either perform or receive the service. A lot is intended to be inferred from the attendance of this service (sparse) and the expression of the officiant (strained, weary). But nothing more expository occurs during those 13 minutes than the last 13 minutes of a Christian service in a small church in some small Swedish town, in winter.

We come to learn that the pastor, Tomas, is not only worn down physically, as he has a cold, but also spiritually, as he lost his wife to disease and has since come to question his whole perspective on the very existence of God. As such, this is about the most overt case of a theme that exists covertly in most of Bergman's texts -- the individual's relationship with his God. Here we have a person who is supposed to have an actual relationship with God, in the traditional interpretation of the role of a religious figure, and if the crisis in his faith is such that he is questioning whether God even exists, what hope do the rest of us have?

In another trademark Bergman approach that we see later in Persona, the film moves to a segment in which the pastor's more recent lover (Ingrid Thulin), now an ex, reads a letter she wrote to him, for unbroken minutes of film on end. With only a single cutaway, we see her "perform" the letter -- though it's actually just a visualization of Eric reading it to himself. We learn a little bit about their relationship (she also attended the service and appears "for real" in other parts of the movie) and just what kind of emotional malaise they all find themselves in. Added to this is another parishioner, played by frequent Bergman collaborator Max von Sydow, who is so despondent over nuclear tests by the Chinese that he is contemplating suicide. This very material sort of depression is contrasted with the more existential depression of the pastor himself.

There's a lot of interesting stuff going on here, but I must admit that it does feel more like bits of ideas than a complete narrative. This lack of cohesiveness was another contributing factor to the movie feeling longer than it should have felt. However, I'm starting to get the sense that this is more typically what is thought of when we talk about Bergman and his films. Those that qualify as epics in one way or another -- such as The Seventh Seal, or I would argue Wild Strawberries in a slightly different way -- are perhaps more the exceptions to his normal mode, and Winter Light may be more typical.

But the only way to know for sure is to keep on keeping on, and seeing what I get next in The Silence.

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