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THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY
The Ingmar Bergman Trilogy

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Max von Sydow, Lars Passgard
Director:  Ingmar Bergman
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  American Trailer, Film Exploration
Length:  89 Minutes
Release Date:  August 19, 2003

“It’s so horrible to see your own confusion and understand it.”

Film ***1/2

After earning worldwide fame for films with at least one foot solidly in fantasy like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, the great Ingmar Bergman turned his attention toward the looming question of faith in a trilogy of films.  Perhaps because of his own skepticism to the notion of God, the elements of fantasy had to be scaled back.  In Through a Glass Darkly, there are fantastic images afoot that we never see…they’re all in the mind of a mentally ill young woman.

In some ways, I see the character of Karin (Andersson) as a fleshed out version of the girl in The Seventh Seal who claimed to have seen and spoken with the devil.  As she was sent to the stake in that picture, her horror at realizing nothing was actually out there (the squire Jons’ interpretation) is evident and unsettling.  Karin goes through her experience of waiting for the arrival of God.  And just before she departs the scene in her own way, expresses the disillusionment of again finding nothing there.

Through a Glass Darkly is something of a chamber play, and its style has influenced modern directors like Woody Allen in September and Robert Redford in Ordinary People.  For a film questioning no less than the very meaning of our existence, Bergman instinctively decided to restrict rather than expand his canvas.  He chose one simple setting of an island vacation home, and brings four people and four people alone into the drama.

There is the patriarch David (Bjornstrand), a writer and Karin’s father.  He loves his daughter and his heart breaks to see her deteriorating and her incurable condition, but at the same time, he can’t resist observing it from a writer’s point of view as a subject for a new text. 

His other child is Minus (Passgard), a tall, awkward adolescent who make strange comments early on about his sister’s touching and hugging and sunbathing half nude, leading us to believe that something out of the ordinary is developing between them.

Finally, Karin’s husband is Martin (von Sydow), a man of science and dutiful partner to Karin who seems more and more quietly despaired by his inability to help her.  He shares a modest but potently revealing scene alone with David, where he confronts her father with his journal on Karin, and David in turn questions him about whether he’s actually wishing Karin would just pass away…not for her sake, but for his own.

Karin is, of course, the central figure in the drama.  Though reviewers have called her a schizophrenic, I don’t recall that the movie ever did.  I don’t know enough about mental illness to make my own diagnosis, but it seemed that for much of the time she was clear in thought and emotion.  Her sickness was manifested in the fact that she claimed to hear voices coming from a crack in the wallpaper in the attic.  Sometimes these voices would beckon her to that top room, where she would succumb and later tell of visions of people preparing and waiting for the appearance of God.

Curiously enough, Bergman doesn’t necessarily take the side of the three men in his movie.  Is Karin really ill?  Or is she just a fragile woman who just MIGHT be seeing something that David, Martin and Minus are too hardened or too blind to see?  I can’t pretend to have an answer to that.  But I do find that keeping an open mind is what makes the picture very rewarding.

Karin’s final departure, which could be deemed as a complete breakdown or maybe just the lifelessness of disappointment in what her visions finally revealed, seems to leave a curious void behind.  In the final scene, Minus talks with David about the nature of God.  David unconvincingly gives the standard issue “God is love” answer, which resolves nothing…one can either take it as a sign of hope or despair.

Bergman’s sense of restraint is usually effective, but even at 89 minutes, the picture has stretches where it seems painfully slow.  The writer/director seemed to whittle his story and drama down to its essentials at first and then possibly had to fill a few spaces as a result.  Still, his final offering is a thoughtful, beautifully photographed first step toward the inevitable question of faith and existence, and his cast is exemplary, particularly the riveting, heartbreaking performance of Harriet Andersson as Karin.

The film went on to garner him international acclaim and an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.  And it opened up his subject matter for further exploration in his subsequent two pictures, Winter Light and The Silence.  Many regard Through a Glass Darkly as one of Bergman’s very best.  I can’t quite say that myself, considering the magnitude of some of the director’s truly greatest offerings, but I can say that it does stand alone in his body of work as an important and singular achievement, and one that no student of cinema should miss.

Video ***1/2

Another triumph for Criterion, and more proof that no company but them should be touching Bergman’s films.  The black and white photography, while not as expressive as some of his earlier works, is still beautiful, lush and distinctive, and this DVD captures every shade, hue and nuance with style and integrity  The print itself is remarkably clean, while the contrast levels are sharp and consistent in all lighting environments.  The detail is impressive, from the interiors to the ripples on the water.  Only a very occasional spot or mark gives away the movie’s age.  A commendable effort.

Audio ***

This is a better than average mono track; clean for its age and boasting some dynamic range during the more emotionally intense scenes, not to mention a fair amount of bottom end from the Bach cello music, delivered without a subwoofer channel.  There is also an English-dubbed track, which is a little more flatter and compressed sounding; dock one star if that’s the track you select.

Features **

The disc features the American release trailer, which is actually a scream for people who have seen the film!  All that’s missing is the heavy voiced narrator saying “In a world where…”.  There is also a Film Exploration segment with historian Peter Cowie, a Criterion regular, who discusses the movie in more detail and also offers an overview for the whole trilogy.

Summary:

Through a Glass Darkly takes the biggest questions and focuses on them with a microscope, reducing and confining them to the scope of one setting and four people.  The modesty of such a microcosm helps bring the most emotionally pure and direct approach to lofty subject matter for which there may be no logical or reasonable answers.  It’s not quite up to the best of Ingmar Bergman, but extremely close.