Tuesday, December 20, 2005


This is my favorite Ingmar Bergman film, and possibly his bleakest. I think it's his most beautiful looking one, with the possible exception of CRIES AND WHISPERS. In this day and age, a brief plot description for this movie might sound like a Bergman parody: on one cold, overcast winter afternoon in a stark Swedish landscape, a minister (Gunnar Bjornstrand) has a crisis of faith when he: 1) is unable to give solace to a suicidal parishioner, and 2) gives the heave-ho to his long-suffering mistress. The movie takes place in an approximation of real time, from the end of his sparsely-attended Sunday morning service to the beginning of an almost completely deserted afternoon service. During the service, the minister notes the "consolation and bliss" that his parishioners should leave with, but no one there looks happy or consoled. Afterward, a farmer (Max von Sydow) comes to Bjornstrand worried that because China has the bomb, the end of the world may be upon us. Instead of offering help, the minister expresses his own doubts about the meaning of life, and a while later, the farmer is found dead from a self-inflicted gun wound. The pastor is also forced to deal with his rather mousy mistress (Ingrid Thulin); their relationship has been dying for some time, and when she writes him a long confrontational letter (which, in a scene with startlingly intimate power, we see read by her directly to the camera), he replies by lashing out at her, agreeing with all of her comments and saying that it's time they broke it off because, basically, she's ugly and he never really liked her much anyway. The film ends as Bjornstrand prepares for an afternoon service to which no one shows up but Thulin. He questions whether or not to go on, and the movie climaxes with a conversation with another suffering individual, the hunchbacked church sexton (Allan Edwall) who talks about physical pain, loneliness, and the suffering of Jesus Christ. The movie ends with the minister beginning the service, but it does not feel like a "happy" ending for anyone. I choose to interpret it in a kind of Samuel Beckett manner: he'll go on, he can't go on, he'll go on. The movie is acted superbly by its entire small cast, which also includes Gunnel Lindblom as Sydow's wife/widow, and the black and white cinematography by Sven Nykvist is never less than stunning, even though the sets are threadbare and the landscape largely empty and forbidding. Maybe not the best Bergman film to start with if you're not already familiar with his work, but certainly one of his great films. [DVD]

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