Monday, April 13, 2009

Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spegel) A Film by Ingmar Bergman (1961)

Almost unfathomably, Ingmar Bergman managed to extract a different atmosphere out of his beloved Fårö Island for each film he shot there. His exterior shots of gentle waves hitting the scattered rocks or the shoreline punctuated by a miniature summer house are usually composed in extremely similar ways, however, the context of each film brings unique dimensions to the environments. In Persona, Fårö nearly seems sunny and enjoyable to contrast from the competitive tension mounting in its characters. Hour of the Wolf's Fårö is utterly frightening, a brooding bearer of bad memories and mysterious people. In Through a Glass Darkly, the first installment in his Silence of God trilogy, the island seems like it exists at the end of the world. The four characters have little immediate connection to what exists outside their remote summer retreat (besides the novelist father David's (Gunnar Björnstrand) discussions of book signings and the helicopter which arrives remedially at the end), so the island takes on an empty, drifting remoteness that works perfectly as a vehicle for the characters to console in each other or, as it frequently and detrimentally works out, themselves.

When placed aside the two films that followed, Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963), Through a Glass Darkly may be the lesser effort. However, when Bergman reminisced about the "trilogy" decades later, he believed the tagging of the films as a trilogy was something that came about in the primitive stages of development, and upon completion, that the films had less thematic parallels than they were described as having. Granted, most of Bergman's films are about faith and isolation to some extent, but perhaps Through a Glass Darkly is best viewed, at least thematically, through a different lens than that of its successors. Otherwise, the film is similar in its small ensemble character study foundations and its ascetic visual approach.

In Through a Glass Darkly, Bergman places a dysfunctional family in a spiritual freeze; there is Karin (a scintillating performance by Bergman regular Harriet Andersson), a gleaming schizophrenic recently released from a mental hospital, Martin (Max Von Sydow), her endlessly loving husband with a lack of faith, David, the writer exploiting Karin's sickness for the sake of his art, and Minus (Lars Passgård), Karin's hopeful, neglected brother who shares an almost incestuous relationship with her. Nearly everyone holds a secret about another. Minus has bitterness towards his father, Martin scorns David for his insensitive attempts at artistic truth, and David deprecates himself when confronted about his falseness. These inner family battles only send Karin into retrograde motion, propounded by her discovery of David's journal. Like a psychic gripped by a celestial insight, she convulses in the spare upstairs bedroom, her eyes clinging to the door behind which she claims she has seen God. Her movements and gestures are utterly disturbing; Andersson truly plumbs the soul of a schizophrenic with her disconnected squirming and illogical, shape-shifting actions. At one point, Minus finds her lying blankly beneath the deck of a small boat toppled beside the shore (a visually compelling scene with dripping water and rays of light). He embraces her limp body remorsefully, partly out of brotherly affection but also out of an insistence upon proving his love for her to his father as a way of attempting to receive love in return.

In what Bergman describes as the "epilogue" - but which is really just the ending - David does offer guidance to his son, explaining rather banally and explicitly his take on the nature of God. Minus responds prosaically: "Daddy spoke to me." This is unevenly didactic in relation to the subtlety of the rest of the film, but fortunately it does not completely damage the power of the finale. Bergman asserts that the return of Karin's disease was possibly caused by a lack of love, and therefore an intangibility of God. Sven Nykvist's cinematography is absolutely remarkable in Through a Glass Darkly as well; his extremely perceptive use of contrast and shadow on the faces of the characters beautifully counterbalances the weight of the familial crisis.

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