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THE SILENCE
The Ingmar Bergman Trilogy

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Ingrid Tulin, Gunnel Lindblom, Jorgen Lindstrom, Hakan Jahnberg
Director:  Ingmar Bergman
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  American Trailer, Film Exploration
Length:  95 Minutes
Release Date:  August 19, 2003

“How nice that we don’t understand each other.”

Film ****

The Silence is a bleak, nihilistic masterpiece of loneliness, failed communication, unfulfilled existences and spiritual bankruptcy.  Of the three films crafted by Ingmar Bergman as a trilogy on faith, this is easily the least hopeful, most depressing, and most important.

He has expertly crafted the kind of world Paul Simon would sing about…people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening.  It begins with the three main characters rolling into a strange town on a silent train trip:  the mother Anna (Lindblom), her small boy Johan (Lindstrom), and her ailing sister Ester (Thulin).  As they enter the town, Johan watches through the window and sees rows of tanks.  There is obviously conflict here.

None of them speak the language.  Attempts to communicate are futile.  Gestures are offered and appreciated, but connections never happen.  They stay in a hotel that seems unusually quiet and free from activity…not the center of bustle and human movement you might expect.  They stop there on their way home, wherever that is, because Ester is too ill to keep traveling.

The silence, as suggested by the title, is everywhere…comfortless and oppressive.  Ester, though a translator with a vast knowledge of languages, can’t break the barrier of communication in this place.  As she tries to make herself known to a kindly old hotel attendant, the effect is compounded visually by placing her in the same frame via a mirror.  The two don’t really connect.

Anna, on the other hand, is withdrawn and restless with her sister but finds communication through sex.  She picks up a stranger in a theatre and sees him several times.  They make love, but they don’t talk.  That is, Anna says a few things, but because of the language difference, she’s really only talking to herself.

Part of the structure of the picture involves seeing the world through the eyes of the child.  We don’t understand this place any more than he does, and when we follow him through the grand halls and corridors of the hotel, we don’t discover much to connect with.  The old attendant offers him warm affection, but nothing he can understand, as he sadly shows him some pictures of coffins and such…are these people lost to him because of the war the imagery has hinted at?  We sense his emotion, but we, too, are helpless to comprehend.

In Through a Glass Darkly, a mentally ill young woman believes God is about to appear, only to be disappointed and spiritually broken by what she finally sees.  In Winter Light, a clergyman has questioned his faith ever since losing his wife, and whether going through the motions means anything to him or his congregation.  But in those films, one could possibly argue that hope is there, even in small form, at their conclusions…a hope that God does in fact exist and work through us even when all seems pointless.

There is no such safety net in The Silence.  God is really only mentioned once in the content of the film, and it’s when Ester prays that she might be allowed to make it home and die there instead of in that sad, lonely and impenetrable city.  The fact that her prayer is not answered might just be Bergman’s final assessment of the subject.

But is the spirit of God represented in this movie?  Is he the little boy Johan, who observes, feels, reacts, but hasn’t the ability to intervene?  Is he the kindly old attendant, who treats us lovingly and tries to care for our needs, but whom we have no capacity to understand?  Is he a timekeeper, keeping track of the precious seconds of our lives like when the old man winds his watch at the foot of Ester’s deathbed?  Or is that more indicative of the Deist tradition that suggests God is like the great watchmaker, who made it all and then entrusted it to our care while taking himself out of the equation?  Were we given everything we need to glorify our world and nurture one another and we just evolved in the opposite direction?  Is the film in the end more about the absence of God or the failure of humanity?

I think the last idea merits the most consideration.  After all, despite their situation, Anna and Ester are able and should be in communion as sisters.  But they’re like the churchgoers at the beginning of Winter Light, seeking communication everywhere but with one another.  Anna wears her resentment of Ester openly, complaining in a late, bitter scene that Ester always had to ascribe meaning to anything and everything.  The challenge is clear…like the young heretic in The Seventh Seal, Ester is facing eternity.  What has meaning now?

It’s fascinating to me to consider that this film was considered a bit taboo for its overt sexuality in its day.  It may have been a little more forthcoming in content than other movies at the time, but to call this a sexual film is to miss the mark.  Even Bergman commented that he felt the publicity was bringing the wrong audiences to his picture.  There is some nudity and at least one strong depiction of sex, but they are joyless in the eyes of our protagonists.  Anna may be sexually liberated, but not emotionally so.  Her confrontation with her sister while in bed with her lover ends with her deranged laughter leading to tears, while the man who doesn’t understand a word he speaks goes about his business…what else could he do?

Unable in the end to overcome her difficulties with her sister, Anna makes the exit trip alone with her son.  In a long, lingering scene, we share Ester’s fear and isolation.  She will die alone.  Though the attendant administers to her with compassion, her thoughts on death fall on our ears alone.  The final shot of Johan softly and sadly reading the “words in a foreign language” she had written to him ends the film on the right, somber note, as Johan attempts to connect to his departing aunt by reading words he doesn’t understand.  The irony is compounded because we were getting the sense that maybe Johan, who seemed distant toward Ester early on, was finally finding some common ground with her on the basis that both felt abandoned by Anna.  The foreign language letter creates the concept of a permanent irresolution.

This is a horrifying depiction of what might best be described as a hell of our own making.  The relentless heat of the setting is only one aspect that makes us think so.  I’ve heard at least one priest describe hell as simply the final and complete separation from God, and that’s what this film feels like.  But the tragedy is that, for me, it seems more like humanity has turned away from God instead of the other way around.  If we can’t connect to one another, how can we hope to ever connect to something greater than ourselves?

At least that’s one interpretation.  The beauty of a Bergman film is that he leaves space for our own thoughts and feelings to take part in the creative process.  Being that he was a confessed agnostic, maybe my ideas are way off base.  Maybe one could argue that the film starts with the removal of God and then the unraveling of everything else.  Maybe The Silence really is the silence of God instead of the silence of man.

These are all significant thoughts to ponder, which is why this movie, despite its sensation of hopelessness, is one of Bergman’s best offerings.  He has shown us a depiction of life and death that we don’t want applied to ourselves.  How we best go about avoiding that is up to us.

Video ***1/2

This is another striking black and white transfer from Criterion that serves Bergman’s lighting, screen compositions and camerawork perfectly.  The cinematography by Sven Nykvist is expressive in subtle ways, with light shadows instead of dark foreboding ones, great attention to detail, and careful construction of spatial relationships.  Everything comes across with cleanness and clarity, with no undue grain or softness.  The print is in first rate condition as well.

Audio ***

Like the title suggests, here is a case where the silence provides the dynamic range.  Long stretches of film are either nearly or totally quiet, and you’ll appreciate the noise reduction capabilities of Dolby with them.  Sudden sounds, like a passing tank, a slammed door, or a crashed lamp come across startlingly strong.  An English dubbed soundtrack is also included, but it alters some of the audio by bringing up sounds and noises where there were none…maybe to trim down the ‘dead air’.  But the silent moments are crucial to the composition, so I’d advise to stick with the original Swedish language track.

Features **

As with the other films in the trilogy, this disc includes the American trailer and a terrific reflection by historian Peter Cowie on the film’s structure, style and content.

Summary: 

The Silence merits a whole hearted if awkward recommendation.  The deliberate pacing, restricted settings, passages of little or no audio and an ultimately pessimistic look at man’s relationship with each other and with God make this a challenging and difficult film to fully digest.  But the craftsmanship, performances and thoughtfulness make this the kind of film that needs to be experienced because of how it confronts us rather than caters to us.  At the very least, it paved the way for Ingmar Bergman to explore similar relationship themes in his later work, such as Cries and Whispers.  Many may not agree, but I’d consider this one of his best.