Sunday, December 14, 2008
Winter Light (1962) A Film by Ingmar Bergman
Last night after viewing Ingmar Bergman's second entry in a loss of faith trilogy, Winter Light, I pondered with my good friend about the wealth of Bergman's cinematic output. Our speculation was that no other prolific director in film history has delivered as many masterpieces as the rigorous Swedish artist. We also agreed that Winter Light was yet another to add to the extended list of greatness. Although I still find The Silence to be the most exquisite work of the trilogy, Winter Light stands as the one of the richest chamber dramas ever devised for the screen. Rivaling Dreyer's Ordet, which was released seven years earlier, Bergman's film is less interested in the ways in which God can interact with the living than the ways that His absence can cause abysmal psychological distress.
Tomas Ericsson, a sickened, droll pastor with an increasingly evident spiritual crisis, acts as the cowardly religious figure of a bleak, wintry Swedish town outlined by rapids. His communions are poorly attended and executed in a lackluster manner (the organist checks his watch periodically while playing, introducing an element of pitch-black comedy to an otherwise serious drama), and the ritualistic murmurs that Tomas recites are telegraphed with a noticeable decline in passion. After the conclusion of the mass that opens Winter Light (which is shot with a tenseness that could easily be absent from such a mundane scene), Tomas retreats indifferently to his vestry where he is confronted by the Persson's, the fisherman husband of whom is experiencing his own spiritual dilemma: a fear of a potential nuclear holocaust as a result of China's dawning of atom bombs. His pregnant wife Karin urges Tomas to speak privately with him to offer consolation. However, Tomas can only muster up a fearful soliloquy of his own accounts of God's silence. His attempt at easement fails miserably and results in Jonas' ensuing suicide, a catalyst for the hushed quandary between Tomas and his past schoolteacher mistress, Marta. Their relationship is not hushed in the sense that they do not speak to each other, but rather in that Tomas continuously swats away Marta's honest attempts at embrace. She, embodied perfectly by Bergman regular Ingrid Thulin, is a non-believer who suffers from masochism and Tomas' coldness. Gunnar Björnstrand, who plays the pastor, was actually very sick during his performance, adding a stark realism to his character.
This grittiness is apparent everywhere in the film, from Sven Nykvist's ascetic camerawork to the brisk weather that shields the communication between Tomas and the policemen after Jonas' (Max Von Sydow) suicide. Bergman's views are extremely pessimistic in comparison to Dreyer's; Tomas persistently questions God's presence and in the end, when it is suggested by the organist that God exists in love, Thulin's character stoops her melancholic head down to declare that she and Tomas cannot ever express true tenderness to one another. Bergman's lamenting of people's incapacity to communicate on a soul-to-soul level runs amok here, just as it does in all of his films. The denouement, however, is perhaps one of optimism: it is a necessity to continue communion no matter what state we are in, for it is always possible to reach out to a lone soul.