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WINTER LIGHT
The Ingmar Bergman Trilogy

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Gunnar Bjornstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow, Gunnel Lindblom, Allan Edwall
Director:  Ingmar Bergman
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Film Exploration, American Trailer
Length:  80 Minutes
Release Date:  August 19, 2003

“I think I have made just one picture that I really like, and that is Winter Light…Everything is exactly as I wanted to have it, in every second of this picture.”Ingmar Bergman

Film ***1/2

If Ingmar Bergman's trilogy of films are united by the subject of faith, the strongest exploration of that subject has to be in the middle movie, Winter Light.  One gets the feeling when watching this minimalist offering from the great Swedish filmmaker that it's perhaps the truest representation of his own personal voice on the issue.

The story takes place in near real time, with 3 hours of action presented in 80 minutes of screen time, on a Sunday morning from the end of a morning church service to the beginning of an afternoon one.  We spend most of the time in the presence of Tomas (the excellent Bjornstrand), a priest who is now questioning everything he once believed in and has virtually come to reject the existence of God.

Although there is potential for real drama with such a character and such a personal crisis, Bergman opts for a different route.  His musings, like the wintry weather outside, are cold, dry, and monochromatic.  In three key exchanges between Tomas and a suicidal parishioner, his long time lover, and finally with a crippled but insightful assistant, Bergman never sacrifices philosophy for emotion.  The results can be a little off-putting to the casual viewer, but for the attentive, there is gold under the surface.

Compounding the difficulty of the narrative is that Tomas isn't a very likable character.  Again, consider how such a character might truly win our sympathies and break our hearts; instead, he is presented as a shallow, self-centered man who can no longer focus on others because he's too caught up in his own throes.  His rejection of God, we learn, stems from the loss of his wife some years back.  He couldn't cope by taking solace in his work as a man of the cloth; instead, as suggested by the film's opening, it's become nothing more than empty ritual to him.  One gathers by how few people attend the morning service and how fewer attend the afternoon one that his lack of passion is taking a toll.

His first major exchange comes with Jonas (von Sydow), a farmer with a simple but relevant fear in 1962: the bomb.  But Tomas can offer no consolation.  Instead, he prattles on about his own sadness and weaknesses, even coming to the conclusion in front of his suicidal parishioner that life has no meaning.  What you expect to happen next does in fact happen, but it brings no emotional climax.  If Tomas regrets at all his inability to simply tell the man “don't do it”, he internalizes it like everything else.  Even when he makes the necessary visit to Jonas' wife (Lindblom), we never get emotional release, as she merely notes sadly that she'll have to tell the children.

The second comes from Marta (Thulin), who has loved Tomas for years and been dutiful to him despite his coldness.  In a simple yet tour-de-force scene, Tomas reads a letter from her, and we see her in close-up, looking at us directly, speaking the words of the epistle as though it were to us and not him.  She recounts a story of how he rejected her during her bout with an unseemly rash.  She admits to never having been religious herself, but points out that Tomas own rejection of God baffles her.

As the two share a scene in an empty classroom, Tomas lets loose on her with a cold soliloquy of even more rejection, while she quietly responds with sadness and yet still remains watchful and loyal to him.  This is the scene where you begin to realize that Tomas' problem with God is particularly one-sided.  God has offered him two chances to reach out to a fellow human being with compassion, and Tomas remained locked inside himself.

The final exchange comes between Tomas and Algot (Edwall), a hunchbacked assistant who exhibits a purity in faith.  He discusses the suffering of Christ, and ponders…was it the physical pain of the cross or the rejection that hurt Him most?  Before His death, Jesus had to come to terms with His apostles falling asleep in Gethsemane, their abandonment when the soldiers came, Peter's denial, and ultimately, the feeling that even God had turned away.

Does this simple yet eloquent discussion of the nature of God sow the seeds of change in Tomas' heart?  As typical of Bergman, the ending remains ambiguous.  As Tomas begins his new service with only Marta in the pews, one can either take it as another meaningless act of going through the motions, or as a sign that maybe Tomas is beginning to rededicate himself to his faith.  Either conclusion could be successfully argued.

The original Swedish title of the film is The Communicants, and while Winter Light conjures up the proper tone and image for the feeling of the picture, the other title with its double meaning is even more suitable.  It talks about those who take Communion, of course, but also suggests the irony of souls who try to maintain communion with God while failing to find communion with their fellow man.  The opening sequence of the Sacrament illustrates this, as Tomas measures out the bread and wine as though it were medicine, and somber faces, each isolated by close-up, respond without a sense of satisfaction and eventually trickle silently out of the building as though nothing were renewed.

Like in his previous film Through a Glass Darkly, Berman structures Winter Light as a chamber drama, with only a few location foci and a minimum of characters to explore.  This approach gives weight to the internalization of Tomas…in settings where it's him and another one on one, there's really no abscesses for him to withdraw into, so we can see he opts instead to retreat further into himself.  Though the sequences of dialogue are important, one will also note that there is a great deal of silence in the film, redoubling the notion of lack of communication, or possibly, as Bergman suggested, the silence of God as man backs away.

I wouldn't pick this movie as the first one to show in introducing somebody to Ingmar Bergman.  The deliberate slowness, even at 80 minutes, the coldness of emotion, the philosophizing replacing passion and the grayness of the subject matter and the images make Winter Light more second year course material.  But it's not a film that will be easily dismissed, either, and like Through a Glass Darkly, I consider this movie to be one of Bergman's near-great, though equally important, offerings.

Video ***

Criterion delivers again on a very different kind of offering from Bergman.  In keeping with his themes and the feeling of winter, this is probably the grayest picture the director ever made.  Less clean whites, less deep blacks…everything kind of leans more toward the center of grayscale.  There is also a deliberately flatter look to the film, with lots of close-ups and less detail in the backgrounds.  This digital transfer is first rate, with a clean print and very little in the way of aging artifacts.  The film is not as expressive with black and white as others, but that's Bergman's choice, and this disc represents a faithful rendering of it.

Audio ***

Likewise, the audio, though mono, is clean, clear and offers some dynamic range in the margins.  The ringing bells are loud and clear, and the sounds of voices in an empty church sound right and pure.  Both original Swedish and dubbed English soundtracks are good.

Features **

Film historian Peter Cowie continues his explorations of the trilogy with a segment on Winter Light that's quite interesting (he also provides an essay in the booklet).  There is also an American release trailer.

Summary:

Winter Light is a thoughtful if unemotional exploration of a crisis of faith that defies most every convention and stands as perhaps Ingmar Bergman's most personal statement on the natures of God and man.  It won't please everybody, but it's the kind of motion picture that won't be easily dismissed, either.