Two estranged sisters, Ester and Anna, and Anna's 10-year-old son travel to the Central European country on the verge of war. Ester becomes seriously ill and the three of them move into a hotel in a small town called Timoka.
It's the early twentieth century Sweden. Adolescent siblings Alexander and Fanny Ekdahl lead a relatively joyous and exuberant life with their well-off extended paternal family, led by the family matriarch, their grandmother, Helena Ekdahl. The openness of the family culture is exemplified by Helena's now deceased husband ending up becoming best friends with one of her lovers, a Jewish puppet maker named Isak Jacobi, and their Uncle Gustav Adolf's open liaison with one of the family maids, Maj, who everyone in the family adores, even Gustav Adolf's wife, Alma. Between the siblings, Alexander in particular has inherited the family's love of storytelling, his parents and his grandmother who are actors and who manage their own theater. Things change for Alexander and Fanny when their father, Oscar, dies shortly after Christmas 1907. Although she truly does believe she loves him, the children's mother, Emilie, decides to marry Bishop Edvard Vergérus, who she first met as the officiate at ... Written by
Swedish director Ingmar Bergman has a reputation for dark, intellectual and introspective dramas, which is only partly justified because many of his early movies were rather light-hearted. Here is the longest movie he did (three hours), and the theatrical version is only half of the original which was twice as long. But length should not stop you from watching this jewel of a film, which is both complex and accessible. After all, "Gone with the Wind" is just as long.
"Fanny and Alexander "isn't exactly a family movie, but it is a movie about family. Family seen in all its different facets through the eyes of two children. The film is divided into three very different parts, each of them showing a different aspect of family life. It is set in Uppsala, Sweden (Bergman's native city), at the turn of the twentieth century. The story begins on Christmas Eve, and we are plunged right away into a fairytale atmosphere.
Fanny and Alexander"s family seems a happy one, actually a family of theatre actors. During the Christmas Eve party held at the grandmother's heavily-furnished house, the atmosphere is joyful at first glance, especially for the children who obviously feel very much at home. But reality is not just what it seems. The children's father is seriously ill. One of the uncles is manic-depressive, and the other is a skirt-chaser who has an affair with the young maid while his wife shows a lot of comprehension. Even the grandmother keeps a secret affair with a Jewish banker (played by Erland Josephson, a Bergman regular) that has lasted for many years.
The children's world collapse as their father dies. Soon after, their still young and beautiful mother marries the bishop, whose name is Vergerus (that's the name of the villain in all Bergman's movies, don't ask me why). The atmosphere in the bishop's house could not be more different from the children's first home. It is bare, silent, freezing. Alexander and the bishop hate each other from the start. This hate culminates when the bishop flogs Alexander to punish him, during a suffocating scene. War is declared from then on. Although the children's mother is pregnant, she already regrets her second marriage and seeks help from her former family.
The grandma's Jewish friend, who is also sort of a magician, manages to kidnap the children by a clever stratagem. They are sheltered in his house, which is full of puppets and mysterious objects. There, a strange nephew of his lives in seclusion (the role is played by a woman). From then on, reality and fantasy get blurred, but what is certain is that the evil bishop meets a cruel fate, and the children's mother finally makes it back to her former home.
The film ends as it began, with a party. Two new babies are just born : the mother's baby she had from the wicked bishop, and the maid's baby with the luscious uncle. The two of them are accepted immediately as part of the family, which is a rather precocious sign of Scandinavian open-mindedness (in 1900, illegitimate children were generally rejected as bastards).
Despite the title, attention is focused much more on Alexander than on Fanny. She is there all the time but speaks little, while showing unconditional solidarity with her brother. A possible reason is that the movie seems to have strong autobiographical elements, more than any other Bergman, and if so, Alexander seems to incarnate Bergman himself as a child. Bergman's father happened to be a minister, and the director confessed that he was raised in a very oppressive manner. Thus, it is quite possible that Alexander's step family is a representation of Bergman's real family, while Alexander's real family is the family Bergman had dreamed of, unsurprisingly a family of actors.
This film also displays the most accomplished use that Bergman's renowned photographer Sven Nykvist ever made of color. He was a long time reluctant to color and kept shooting in black and white well into the sixties. Bergman's first color movies had nothing special, until "Cries and whispers" where an obsessive use of red started to appear. The color contrasts are very strong in "Fanny and Alexander", and are especially used to underline the difference between the grandmother's colorful home and the bishop's house which is mostly all black and white.
There are many characters in this story, and all the major adult roles are played by actors who are all very famous in Sweden. There is a special appearance by Harriet Andersson, who played the female lead in many Bergmans of the fifties, especially well remembered as the whimsical "Monika". Here, she is ungratefully cast as the bishop's elderly tormented servant who likes scaring the children with horror stories. As for the young maid, she is played Pernilla Wallgren, who married Danish director Bille August and became later famous as Pernilla August. She played the lead in "The best intentions" directed by Bille August but based on a script by Bergman, and also taking place in Uppsala at the turn of the twentieth century...
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