' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Winter Light (1963)

Friday, February 01, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Winter Light (1963)

I confess: the first 12 minutes of the second in Ingmar Bergman’s so-called Faith Trilogy is the longest I have spent inside a church in years. This is because the first 12 minutes of “Winter Light” recounts in plain detail a Lutheran church service presided over by Tomas Ericcson (Gunnar Björnstrand). What strikes us, however, is not the liturgy but the sparsely populated if vast sanctuary. There are maybe, six, seven parishioners listening to Tomas intone. One little boy barely listens at all. They come forward to partake in the sacrament. But, is this it? Are there no others? We are made to believe this is a small, dreary Swedish fishing village but surely there are no more than seven citizens? Has a crisis of faith descended on the townsfolk?


Possibly, for after the service a young wife, Karin (Gunnel Lindblom) and her husband Jonas (Max von Sydow), approach the flu-stricken Tomas. Jonas has been wracked by thoughts of nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Chinese and, thus, seems to have lost all sense of “the point” – presaging Alvy Singer’s overwhelming neurosis about the ever-expanding universe. Tomas suggest Jonas drop his wife at home and return for an in-depth discussion.

This might be less than the best idea. This is because Tomas, despite being shepherd to a flock, is struggling with his own faith and consumed with guilt over his treatment of Marta (Ingrid Thulin), the local schoolmarm who does not believe in God and whose love for Tomas is not reciprocated by him. In fact, we learn that a horrific rash that started on her hands and spread to her whole body repulsed Tomas and that his prayers for her did nothing – perhaps because he imbued them with no belief, perhaps because he never believed at all, perhaps because he did not want to say them in the first place.

We learn this awful story through a letter written by Marta, but Bergman has Thulin read it aloud in an elongated and unbroken and unremitting close-up. It suggests the way in which Tomas (or any of us, for that matter) cannot escape from his sins of the past but it also speaks to the stark, unsparing, unsentimental style Bergman employs for the whole short-running (80 minutes) but exceptionally powerful film.

“Winter Light”, in a way, is about how easy it is to adopt cynicism in the face of faith and, yet, “Winter Light” is decidedly not a film for cinematic cynics. Its themes are Big Picture and it is unafraid to address them deeply and overtly for when a man or woman begins to question his or her faith or, even more to the point, the existence of God Himself (Herself) there ain’t no bleeping time to chit-chat about the weather and discuss if meatloaf is really what you want for dinner.


The church sexton, Algot (Allan Edwall), sits down with his Pastor and has a frank conversation about the crucifixion, about how we tend to focus primarily on the physical suffering as opposed to the emotional suffering (well, hey, that describes a movie to a tee, doesn’t it?!). Physical pain can be pinpointed and, thus, easier to acknowledge or easier to tell yourself you are doing something to prevent or cure it. You can wrap bandages around your hands for a rash, you can take cough syrup for a cold and if you’re a hunchback like the sexton you can distract yourself from the pain by reading The Gospels. A crisis of faith, though, imbeds itself in your mind. Without others to lean on, the sexton suggests, such as the disciples betraying Jesus, the weight can become almost too much to bear.

It initially appears confounding that Marta would not turn and run from Tomas after he coldly rejects her in a coldly flat scene. She returns to the church with him and is the lone parishioner to attend his three o’clock service. Why does she do this? Why, for that matter, does he go back out there in the face of what befalls him over the course of the film? Why continue to cry out for God when all we hear is His silence?

People are always pitting science against God but if you think about it, well, the sanctuary is a little like S.E.T.I. You send a prayer into the cosmos and then you pray someone is actually out there to hear it.

3 comments:

Rory Larry said...

If you haven't watched it yet, it is worth watching Through A Glass Darkly. Not as good as Winter Light but its more positive affirmation of God is a nice lens through which to view this film. One of the key themes of the first film is even directly addressed in dialogue: god is love. The Silence, the third film, I'm not a big fan.

Nick Prigge said...

RORY!!!

I looked up Through A Glass Darkly afterwards and may very well turn to that one next. I just need to familiarize myself more with Bergman in general.

katia said...

“Winter Light” by Ingmar Bergman (1962) is the second part of his “religious trilogy” (the first, “Through Glass Darkly” – 1960, and the third, “Silence” – 1962). In the first film, the basic (for achieving an enlightened life) human abilities – to love without psychological defensiveness and to be vital without de-sublimation, that together as a sacred combination make human beings spiritual creatures, leave the existential circumstances of human life and retreat [in]to the “heavens”. In the third film of the trilogy “god” [is “dead”] (the form in which unity of human love and human vitality take place outside life) (has “died”) and human beings have to start from the beginning. But “Winter Light” depicts a situation when “god is silent”, and human beings slowly grow towards the understanding that it is up to them to return their libidinous vitality back into (earthly) life[, existence]. [All the films in Bergman’ trilogy] (In all of the films of trilogy Bergman’s) point(s) about spiritual life are mediated by a scrupulous psychological analysis of the characters.
“Winter light” is a metaphor of light of love/vitality in a condition of being distant from human life[, from everyday being/existence]. The film depicts the Christian faith of seven characters – Pastor Tomas Ericsson and the six parishioners of his Church (three men and three women). Each protagonist‘s faith is uniquely created by their individual intelligence and will [by] (in) the unique circumstance(s) of each of their lives. Bergman approaches each character’s religious belief as a sacred reality, as a precious creation. Some of the personages he personally admires, some he respects and others are objects of his “loyal criticism” that is full of empathy and [is made in] good faith.
The frankness and gracious intensity with which the director depicts the human destinies and encounters between the characters are overwhelming, as much as actors’ performances make each individual soul radiate its own truth. Each [personality] (personage) is represented as having been formed by [their own] life[, experience] and human history, nothing is fabricated in order to entertain or sentimentally please the audience. With all seriousness, the film is so congruent with the human emotions that it is taken inside (human) [our] soul[a] as naturally as air for our lungs.
The film addresses Christians of various denominations, as much as people of other beliefs and non-believers with equal authority, and is an icon of not only philosophical(,) but humanistic cinema.
The film confirms that Bergman’s cinema is made for [all centuries, for] 21st (century) even more (than it was for 20th century).
By Victor Enyutin