A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Through a Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman, 1961)

Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly is usually grouped with his films Winter Light (1963) and The Silence (1963) as a kind of trilogy about the search for God, though Bergman denied having any intent to make a trilogy. It remains one of his most critically praised films, winning an Oscar for best foreign language film and receiving a nomination for Bergman's screenplay. But there are many, like me, who find it talky and stagy, despite Sven Nykist's beautiful cinematography and the effective use of location shooting on the island of Fårö in the Baltic. Some of the staginess, I think, comes from the casting of such familiar members of Bergman's virtual stock company as Harriet Andersson, Max von Sydow, and Gunnar Björnstrand. Andersson plays Karin, a woman just out of a mental hospital where she has recovered from a recent bout with what seems to be schizophrenia. She is married to Martin (von Sydow) and they have come to stay on the island with her father, David (Björnstrand), and her younger brother, Minus (Lars Passgård). David is distracted by his attempt to finish a novel, and both of his children rather resent his preoccupation. Martin confides in David that although Karin seems to have recovered, the doctors say that her illness is incurable -- a revelation that David records in his diary. Of course, Karin reads the diary, which precipitates a crisis, during which, among other things, she seduces her own brother. At the climax of the film, Karin has a vision of God as a giant spider that attempts to rape her. After she and Martin are taken away to the hospital, David has a moment alone with Minus, whom he assures that God and love are the same thing, and that their love for Karin will help her. Minus seems consoled by this thought, but perhaps even more by the fact that he has actually had a connection with his father: "Papa spoke to me" are the last words of the film. This resolution of the film's torments feels pat and theatrical and even upbeat, which may be why Bergman went on to make the much darker films about religious faith that constitute the rest of the trilogy. But it also suggests to me why I find Bergman's films so much less satisfying than those of Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer, both of whom wrangled with God and faith in their films. Bresson and Dreyer liked to use unknown actors, and some of the familiarity we have with Bergman's players from other films distances us from the characters. We watch them acting, not being. When Bresson is dealing directly with religious faith in a film like Diary of a Country Priest (1951) or Dreyer is telling a story about a literal resurrection in Ordet (1955), we are forced to confront our own beliefs or absence of them. Bergman simply presents faith as a dramatic problem for his characters to work out, whereas Bresson and Dreyer drag us into the messy actuality of their characters' lives.

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