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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann
Director:  Ingmar Bergman
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.77:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Ingmar Bergman Interview
Length:  91 Minutes
Release Date:  June 19, 2001

Film ****

Cries and Whispers marks my first experience with an Ingmar Bergman film in color.  The great Swedish director’s usual preference was black and white, and he created some of cinema’s most startling and memorable images with a limited chroma palate.  But he instinctively felt Cries would be a movie where color would be integral to the story.  He was right.  Offhand, I can think of very few films that use color as narratively as this one.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the most beautiful, or the most vibrant, or the most gauche.  What it means is that Bergman’s bold use of select colors creates atmosphere, suggests images, and frames the characters with stunning clarity.   Cries and Whispers is many things:   a sobering look at life and death, of joy and happiness, of tenderness and horror.  What could have been a hodgepodge of styles with a fractured storyline flows effortlessly with emotion, and part of that ease in narration is owing to the colors.

Red permeates the posh house where Agnes (Andersson) lays dying.  With her are her trusted servant Anna (Sylwan) and her visiting sisters Maria (Ullmann) and Karin (Thulin).   Red is a beautiful color normally; when one sees a splash of it in a vibrant looking movie, we immediately praise the visual composition of the scene.  Here, it’s far too much, forcing us to think of the uglier side of red:  blood.  Anger.  Danger.  Overuse of red also has the effect of making objects of other colors look stifled, oppressed, and suspended against it, particularly when Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist use pure white for contrast.  I couldn’t help but think of Van Gogh, who used color so energetically and joyously in most of his paintings, but created a vivid, haunting nightmare with “The Red Room”, where even light seemed frozen.

That’s the effect Bergman achieves here, and with it, he tells the stories of these four ladies.  Agnes’ experience with dying both brings the sisters together and alienates them.  In key flashback sequences (that fade to red instead of black), we learn about Karin and Maria, each self-centered, and each trapped in their own world of lies and pain.  In the present setting, we also learn of Anna and her love and loyalty for Agnes.  Having lost a child in her past, she does not feel the fear and repulsiveness toward death that the sisters do.  She does not hesitate to reach out her hands and body to Agnes to make her feel less lonely as her time winds down, a point accented by shots of oppressive looking clock faces.

There have been many films over the years featuring a key character facing death, but Cries and Whispers strips its scenes of their usual sterility.  The camera lingers on Agnes for long, lingering, contemplative moments as she suffers.  Is this what death is like?  (Having witnessed a death by cancer in my own family, I can say with great solemnity, yes.)

Two scenes near the end, both of which border on the fantastic, are key.  One suggests the deceased Agnes is actually not gone yet…the reactions of the other three women to this unsettling event are very telling.  Another is Agnes’ own flashback, possibly from the point of view of death.   What is happiness, the film asks?  Sometimes, the simplest things.

I was moved and haunted by this unique film, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for a full day afterwards.  Images were imbedded in my mind as though they were my own memories.  Perhaps that owes something to the dreamlike quality of Bergman’s visuals.  The film doesn’t play quite like reality, nor quite like fantasy.  Maybe it’s either someone’s dream of what reality is, or it’s the reality of someone’s dream.

The performances from all four women are unforgettable, but Harriet Andersson and Kari Sylwan are particularly astounding.   Agnes’ coping with death and Anna’s unflinching devotion make up most of the film’s heart, and juxtaposed against the sisters’ coldness, becomes all the more emotional.

Ingmar Bergman, however, is in   top form as writer and director.  While exploring themes common to his films like the meaning of life and death, as a writer, he asks burning questions that sometime outnumber the answers.   Perhaps that’s the essence of the eternal mystery.  But as a technician, he offers more than just striking visuals.  One of the most memorable scenes makes masterful use of audio as well.  After a bitter argument between Karin and Maria, the characters come together in apology.  We were allowed to hear the words spoken in anger, but Bergman deliberately deprives us of their words of love, reducing the scene to a vivid show of speech with no words, and a Bach cello filling the silence.  These women later refer to this moment.  Our imaginations have to suffice…perhaps it was simply a private moment best left private.

All elements come together under Bergman’s meticulous control, and they work to enhance and further the story.  Cries and Whispers is a film of moods, feelings, and remembrances, and plays out in a way that only the art of film could express…a compliment that can be stated about many of Bergman’s greatest works.

Video ***1/2

Criterion offers a beautiful anamorphic transfer for this film (actually framed at about 1.77:1 instead of the 1.66:1 listed on the box), which maintains all of Sven Nykvist’s illustrious and Oscar winning cinematography.  The copious amounts of extreme red, particularly when juxtaposed against figures of white as often as it occurs here, create images that absolutely cry out for color bleeding; there is none anywhere.  No matter how harsh the contrasts are, individual objects and figures maintain their integrity with striking boldness.  The level of detail is strong throughout, as again, strongly toned scenes almost beg to come across as an undistinguishable wash of color, but never do.  The print shows its age only slightly in the form of occasional bits of barely noticeable flicker or inconsistencies; these are few and far between, and given the difficulty inherent in preserving such stark images with such clarity, certainly highly forgivable.

Audio ***

As per the norm, I personally prefer the original Swedish language track, but as a nice surprise, Criterion also included the English soundtrack that was personally overseen by Bergman and features each actress actually dubbing her own voice, making for one of the better re-recorded foreign films I’ve experienced.  You don’t lose anything with either track; though simple mono mixes, the audio is quite effective:   dynamic range is strong, with no noise interfering with the quieter moments.  The musical score sounds sweet and potent when it plays.  All in all, a highly satisfying listening experience.

Features **

Only one feature, but it’s a good one…a rare interview with Ingmar Bergman recently recorded for Swedish television.   This 52 minute special may be as close as we’ll ever get to this legendary cinematic giant.


Cries and Whispers is an absolute masterpiece from a man who made more than his share of them.  To experience Ingmar Bergman’s expressive, haunting film is to experience the art of cinema in its purest form.  With this quality DVD offering from Criterion, this is one every film connoisseur should have on hand.