Thursday, September 4, 2014

Whole Lotta Bergman: The Silence

As we get closer, chronologically, to Persona -- the movie that started this series, but came later in Ingmar Bergman's career than the ones I've watched -- I'm starting to see a thematic shift toward the type of preoccupations on display in that 1966 film.

The Silence is a good example of that.

It's the third of three movies that came to constitute an informal trilogy on faith, at least in terms of how Bergman thought about them in retrospect. But it is far less overtly about faith than either of the previous two, Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light. In fact, The Silence dives headlong into a sexuality that would also make a significant appearance in Persona, but had only been hinted at in Glass and Winter.

Never one to be particularly heavy on plot, Bergman here offers up perhaps the flimsiest narrative of any of his films I've seen -- which is not a complaint in this case. The story is basically this: Three people -- two adult sisters and their pre-teen son/nephew -- are returning to their home via train from a trip to an unnamed foreign country. They get waylaid in a different unnamed foreign country because the boy's aunt is sick and can no longer continue travelling. While waiting for her to convalesce, the boy and his mother explore the hotel, and some small amount of the city it resides in. Gradually it is revealed that the relationship between the two sisters is toxic, and neither of them may have what you would consider a healthy relationship with the boy.

I understand that to Bergman, the title The Silence represents God's silence, and though that's definitely one available interpretation, it's not the one I find most compelling. Silence takes on many forms in this movie, not the least of which is that the soundtrack itself goes through whole patches where there is almost no noise. There is of course no music, which is not at all a surprise with Bergman, but sometimes there is such an absence of other noise in this movie that it becomes deafening, to use the old cliche.

Clearly, one other form of silence is the silence of the confessional. If I didn't know Bergman was viewing this from a faith standpoint, I mightn't have reached that conclusion on my own, but both of the women in this movie have characters who function as priests taking their confessions. As they are stuck in a country where they do not speak the language, they can barely communicate to the two other key characters in the film -- a footman who waits on the sickly sister and gets her various balms (medicinal or otherwise), and a lover the healthy sister takes. Neither character is actually mute, but they barely speak at all, and because they don't understand what the sisters are saying anyway, the sisters can confess all kinds of psychological and emotional madness to them without any repercussions.

And what a bunch of dysfunctional crap these sisters have between them. The one at death's door is a more bookish type, a translator of literature, who appears envious of what her sister has (a son, the attention of men). The healthy sister is a voluptuous type who effortlessly ensnares members of the opposite sex, who hates her sister for her sister's resentment, etc. We eventually learn that they both seem to want the other dead, and they both are oddly affectionate with the young boy, standing too close to him and petting him in ways that verge on the unseemly.

The boy is another story. He has clearly become confused by the unusual attentions of these two women, and has a kind of curiosity that cannot be sated. Much of his time is spent scampering around the hotel, seeing things he shouldn't be seeing and having little mini-adventures (like when he comes across a troupe of performing midgets). Bergman's camera in these scenes is that of a formalist, which hasn't been as evident in some of his previous work. There's a certain spookiness to these scenes that makes a person wonder if Stanley Kubrick received some inspiration for The Shining from the hotel in The Silence.

And this boy -- he's an odd duck. I think I came in with a preconceived notion of his weirdness, as Bergman uses the same actor -- Jorgen Lindstrom -- for the unshakable opening to Persona three years later.

I mentioned sex earlier. Bergman includes several scenes of highly eroticized female bodies, including two people having sex in a public cabaret and the main character Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) beating the summer heat by washing her large breasts in a sink. Anna also recounts a fictitious story of a sexual account with a man, which we will again see (to great erotic effect) in Persona. I'm not sure why I call specific attention to this, except that it kind of flies in the face of my understanding of social morays at the time, that nudity and sex were to be seen at all in a film from the early 1960s. They also seems like an odd outcome from the guy who made The Seventh Seal. However, this film (along with Persona) leaves no doubt about the modernist sensibilities of Bergman as a director.

What I love most about this film (and you can probably tell that I loved it) is just how weird it is, and how little it involves the excessive telling of characters' thoughts. Not that I viewed the tell-don't-show approach of the previous two films in the trilogy as necessarily a weakness, but I now realize I considered the dialogue in those films somewhat didactic. The Silence, perhaps appropriately given its title, is far more reliant on nuance and viewer interpretation of events, and has the courage to resemble a nightmare at numerous moments throughout. Bergman's camera focuses in on details that speak volumes, including, quite memorably, the various gnarled parts of the sister Ester's aspect while she's in the deepest throes of her sickness.

Okay, just one Bergman film left from the five I borrowed. I'll finish off this little series of mine in another couple weeks by jumping forward nine years (and finally past Persona in the chronology) to 1972's Cries and Whispers.


Jandy Hardesty said...

This is the only one of the "faith" trilogy that I haven't seen yet; your write-up makes me a lot more interested. Not that I wasn't interested already...I didn't care for Through a Glass Darkly too much (I might more now that I have more Bergman under my belt), but Winter Light intrigued me quite a bit despite continuing to hold me at arm's length. With Persona being easily my favorite Bergman film, it sounds like this one will end up being my favorite of the faith trilogy.

Vancetastic said...

Yeah Jandy, you will definitely dig this. Once you've seen it I will be curious to see if you think there is a legitimate faith component present. I kind of doubt that there is, even though I've found ways to interpret it as such, given what I know about how Bergman regarded the film.