As Ingmar Bergman's "swan song" (which wasn't necessarily the case once After the Rehearsal and the recent Saraband were released), Fanny and Alexander was a film I saw many months ago, in its truncated, 3-hour version. I knew I had witnessed something special, something life-affirming, and above all a work that contained enough poetry, passion, and humanity for two movies. But I also felt as if there was something missing here and there. So, once the complete TV version was released, as with Scenes from a Marriage, I jumped at the opportunity to view it in its entirety. Broken up here into 5 Acts, Bergman takes another semi-autobiographical approach to his storytelling, and it's a sumptuous tale of a turn of the 20th Century family (the Ekdahls, comprising of Oscar and Emilie, the parents, Fanny and Alexander, the kids- Alexander being mostly the driving force behind the story- and also the other relatives Carl and Gustov Adolf, brothers of Oscar, Helena, Alma, Lydia, and also the housemaid Maj) who own a theater company.
What makes Fanny and Alexander work as a major achievement, if anything else for my money is that all the elements seem balanced out over the acts, with story and characters, each sharply defined. The first act unfolds with attention to the little details and the more prevalent ones in a family gathering. A key speech made by Oscar is a haunting bit of foreshadowing before they set off for the family dinner. This scene, involving more or less two dozen people, is sometimes very funny, sometimes a little unnerving, and towards the end depressing. But scenes such as these reveal how wonderful and exciting Bergman can be with his material and actors- despite it taking place in 1907, you can see these people in modern settings just as easily. There's also the scene involving Oscar with his children before they go to sleep, in which he tells them a story, which ranks as one of the more memorable, touching scenes of the film - from here, we can understand how this brings to Alexander (Bertil Guve, in a performance that is touching by being so straightforward with the innocence of child-hood) to the state he's in for much of the rest of the picture.
Then the second and third acts come around, and the tragedy unfolds as penetrating as I've seen in any film, much less from Bergman. It wouldn't spoil it to say that Oscar succumbs to an illness, and passes away. From here, Emilie (Ewa Fröling, a performance meant for Liv Ullman, which she fits just as well) tries to go on as usual, and it just doesn't feel the same. She seeks counsel from the village bishop, Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo, previously in Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage), and subsequently falls in love with him, or at least thinks she does. They get married, and the children are forced into leaving (almost) everything behind to live at his dreary, caged residence, a far cry from where they once lived, a place lush with colors and life in the rooms. Both of these assets are provided by an Oscar winning production design team, and the foundations of how these two, including as well the theater, display how period-perfect some of this can be.
The last two acts are when things get rough, which is a standard Bergman is known for. This kind of standard, if I could call it such, includes his personal connection to the Christian church, in particular with his father being a Lutheran priest. I'm not guessing on how fact based Bishop Vergerus is to Bergman's life, and I really don't want to either. One of the things I loved about the film (than some likely hated on it's original release- I know, for example, that my father was devastated after watching this film) is how the good and the bad, or what could be seen as good and bad, are paired off, and how the middle-ground is just as clear or un-clear. Emilie is a good person, wanting the best for her children and for herself, but she doesn't know how to do that without someone to bring guidance when she cannot after grieving for her dead husband (who appears sometimes to Alexander, which is another matter). Alexander, who is a child raised with all the enthusiasm to express himself as such by his uncles and particularly his theatrical father Oscar, is good but lending himself to not being too firm on what's real and what is not.
The Bishop, on the other hand, is one who, as he says at one point "has only one mask". His is a puritanical approach, who sees imagination in only one strict aspect, and has terms of love that are by his code of living and understanding of people. Veregus, along with his family that live in fear and suffering (Harriet Andersson's character, and with the character of the heavy, ill aunt), know little is anything about how the Ekdahls have lived. What ends up happening, even from the get-go of the third act, in the fourth and fifth acts Bergman reveals Bishop Veregus to be an immense antagonist, one that allows just enough sympathy in one or two spots to not throw something at the TV, but with the kind of language that only the most terrifying of movie characters possess. Bottom line, this character, whether you like the film or not, is one of Bergman's greatest creations, and is pulled off by Malmjso with icy, disturbing perfection; it's one of the most memorable of the kind in film I can think of, right up there with Nurse Ratched, HAL 9000, and Darth Vader.
But what torment and anguish the characters, as well as much of the audience, seem to endure in the fourth/fifth acts; there also comes revelatory moments of sheer beauty and enchantment. A couple of scenes involving Alexander in the puppet shop, for example, display a level of artistry that goes between Bunuel and Disney. And a particular, long soliloquy by Isak (Erland Josephsson, not under-used at all) to the children is a poem unto itself that gives me an idea that Bergman had he not gone into theater and film, would've been one of the great poets of the 20th century. As the catharsis comes, it comes with a kind of justice that works in the only way it satisfyingly could have. With the fates of the Bishop, Emilie, and Alexander and Fanny brought to a close, as with the Grandmother, the uncles and aunts, and so on, it's all very symbolic, metaphorical, and real, and it gels together.
One last note- Sven Nykvist, who one his second Oscar with Bergman for this film, creates the kinds of shots that some could only have in their dreams. When he visualizes something for Bergman with the forces of light and dark, with the subtlety and nuance, it's all the better. To put this all in another way, I could go on and on about this huge, heart-rendering work, but it all comes down to this- as an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual (surprisingly for me, who sees religion as a kind of fantasy) sort of film-viewing experience, Fanny and Alexander is one of the most profound I've ever had. Some may feel the same; some may want to forget they ever experienced it. But one thing the film does is stick with you, if only for a little while, and that's really what a film can and should do....by the way, the 5-hour version, at least in America, is only available on a high-priced special edition DVD pack from Criterion, but for the viewer who's already a fan of the film, it makes for a great holiday gift. A++
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