Monday, January 5, 2009

Bergman's "Trilogy of Faith"

Through a Glass Darkly (1961) - viewed spring 2006

Winter Light (1962) - #479 TSPDT, viewed Jan 3, 2009

The Silence (1963) - #459 TSPDT, viewed Jan 4, 2009

Ingmar Bergman's so-called "Trilogy of Faith", a cinematic powerhouse, deserves viewing by anyone who loves film - art-house or otherwise. They're short chamber pieces with small casts; their plots unfold over the course of a day or two. They're visually arresting (photographed by legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist) and emotionally and intellectually engaging. They question our existence, our beliefs, our aspirations, our anxieties. They challenge our faith (and, paradoxically, our lack thereof) and beg us to examine aspects of our being that we'd probably rather forget. And they accomplish all of this without fanfare or pretension. These films are stripped down, economical.

Yes, obviously I love Bergman. But it's an appreciative love that allows for criticism. For me, each of these films trounce their predecessor.

Through a Glass Darkly
, the first in the series, mercilessly drops us into the weekend gathering of a broken bourgeois family, consisting of a father, his son and daughter, and his daughter's husband. The daughter Karin suffers from schizophrenia, and was just released from an asylum, while her father David, a second-rate novelist in denial, has just returned from a long trip abroad. Minus, the son, desperately seeks his father's affection while harboring less than proper feelings for his beautiful and deranged sister, and Martin, Karin's husband, is unable to cope with his wife's illness.

Although infinitely watchable (and in the end, shocking, at least in its suggestions), I consider this the least effective of the three simply for the plethora of fractured relationships laid bare for our examination. Bergman, wise enough to resist the temptation for moral lecturing, instead attempts to examine a specific philosophical dilemma in each of these films. By his words, Darkly "conquers certainty." Frankly, Religulous conquers certainty. Darkly conquers (unintentionally) our hope, and I believe the source of this incongruity lies in the films scattered focus.

Part II of the trilogy, Winter Light, considers the plight of Tomas, a country priest. He's asked by a woman in his congregation, Karin (no, not the same from Darkly) if he will speak to her husband, Jonas, who's suffering from an existential crisis apparently brought on by rumors that Mao's China has acquired "the bomb." He agrees, but faced with a dwindling congregation and a loveless, secret affair with the atheistic and obsessed Marta (engrossingly portrayed by Ingrid Thulin), he finds that he has only doubt and self-loathing to heap upon the already suicidal Jonas.

The film's a masterpiece of quiet desperation. The opening sequence of the service in the nearly empty chapel subtly communicates the indifference, boredom, and mind-numbing ritualism that any of us who've ever been to church have had to endure. Even more fascinating is the powerful verbal battle between Tomas and Marta that takes place during the film's second act; the emotionally dizzying turns from hatred to love, defiance to subservience, foreshadow Bergman's verbal epic of the following decade, Scenes from a Marriage. For me, the only flaw sprang from the implausibility of both the source and resolution of Jonas's dilemma.

Part III, The Silence, abandons any remaining inhibitions from the first two films and dives headlong into the heart of the matter: sex and death. Because when it boils down to it, modern-day Christianity, for all its self-righteous spirituality and hypocritical proclamations, is actually about nothing more than our fear and fascination with the two most defining human experiences: sex and death. The Silence - a film about two sisters and a son who disembark their train early in a foreign land on the brink of war - is complete with nudity, masturbation, fornication, lesbianism, incest, asphyxiation, and midgets. I promise you won't soon forget it.

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