The first film in director Ingmar Bergman's "faith trilogy" - to be completed several years later with "Winter Light" (1962) and "Silence" (1963) - "Through A Glass Darkly" (1961) stars Harriet Andersson as Karin, a young woman who suffers from a mental illness. This illness resembles schizophrenia, but Bergman cruelly calls it "the disease of faith", a symptom of Karin's theism.
Karin habitually sees visions of God, but her visions are warped to the point of parody. Her God takes the form of a salacious spider, and later a helicopter which ferries her sputtering body to a mental hospital. Supporting the increasingly deranged Karin are three men: Karin's brother, husband and father. These men embody three very different approaches to "spirituality" or "love", each of which is contrasted with Karin's more Christian outlook. The father, for example, is a cynic, depressive and writer, and is increasingly detached from a family he loves only insofar as they provide material for his increasingly morbid novels. The husband, in contrast, is a man of science, but his rationality proves unable to cure his wife. Meanwhile, Karin's brother is a naive, budding play-write, who develops an incestuous, sexual attraction toward her. As with Bergman's other "faith" films, Karin's beliefs are mocked for being hollow and borne of delusions, but shown to be far less horrific than those of the apathetic, post faith characters who surround her.
The film ends with a macabre parody of romantic, spiritual and familial love. Here, Karin's embrace by God is ushered in by incestuous sex with her brother. An angelic helicopter then lifts her, not up into heaven, but toward a psychiatric ward. Afterwards, Karin's father tells his son that the family's love for one another is proof enough of the existence of God. His words are a self defence mechanism, designed to assuage the pain of watching his family disintegrate. The son, so starved of affection and attention, then accepts the father's drivel. By the film's end, Bergman has shown not only how a love of God is often the displacement of the love we should show for one another, but how even the staunchest unbelievers summon "Gods" to bolster their fragility.
Like "Through A Glass Darkly, "Winter Light", the second film in Bergman's trilogy, takes place in a cold, remote part of Sweden. Bergman's tone is austere and chilling throughout, all skies, oceans, rivers, buildings and vistas seemingly bleached and robbed of all depth. Attuned to this suffocating "nothingness" is Tomas Ericsson, a village pastor (named after Bergman's own father, a priest called Erik) who has lost his faith but continues to tend to his dwindling congregation. If Bergman's "faith trilogy" traces a movement away from shaky belief to profound existential abandonment, then "Winter Light" represents the mid-point of this journey: shaky disbelief, God's light wintry, wispy and uncertain.
And so Bergman paints Tomas as a man of, not only uncertainty, but contradictions. Tomas uses his position of "divine authority" to absolve himself of blame when one member of his congregation commits suicide, whilst using his certainty that God doesn't exist, and therefore also absolute morality, as an excuse for his treatment of several woman. But the problem, the film goes on to show, isn't that God does or does not exist, but that he has always been summoned and shunted aside whenever it best suits man.
"Winter Light" ended with two atheists in a church, waiting for God to speak. The silence that greets them becomes the basis of Bergman's "The Silence", arguably the greatest film in his trilogy (and the precursor to his traumatising "Cries and Whispers"). Making heavy use of sound effects and little use of dialogue, the film centres on Anna, Ester and Johan, a young boy. Whether these characters are related (Lovers? Family? Friends?) is never clarified.
It isn't long before Bergman is alluding to off-screen wars (expressionistic shots of tanks and war machines) and the on-screen mortality of his characters (Ester coughs blood; she's dying from Tuberculosis), all forms of human suffering which for centuries have cast doubt on the existence of God. The rest of the film then largely takes place in a hotel, which Johan explores whilst Ester remains ill and bed bound. During his explorations he will stumble across various mundane yet disturbing sights and sounds. Think the fan which is placed at Ester's bedside, ostensibly for her comfort, but with each blade spin being a reminder of helplessness. Meanwhile, the click of Johan's toy pistol echoes shadowy military vehicles, whilst typewriters and clocks sing songs of death, each tick-tock bring one closer to oblivion. There's a certain, sickening "finality" to "The Silence's" "noise".
Most horrific, though, is the disguised contempt these characters have for one another, despite their seemingly unwavering love. Ester despises Anna for her good health, for the carnal pleasures she indulges in, whilst Anna apathetically views Ester as a constant inconvenience. It's a love-hate tug of war which little Johan is being indoctrinated in.
And so more horrific than God's silence is our own silence, our inability to both truly connect with another human being, and to know completely what the other is thinking. Despite Ester and Anna's rituals of human connection, they remain forever apart and forever alone. Ester herself represents the "Mind", a figure of intellect and rationality (linked to Bach, is multilingual etc), while Anna represents the "Body", Bergman stressing her bodily routines (bathes, eats, sex, is facile etc). What the film shows is that Pure Reason eventually withers the body, whilst carnality, unennboled by reason, ultimately leads to similar self destruction. Bergman's cure is the film's final word: "spirit". He closes on a powerful shot of Johan, the boy's future, and dilemma, ours.
8.5/10 – Worth one viewing. The trilogy's cinematography, by Sven Nykvist, suffocates.
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