Sunday, November 7, 2010

#210: Winter Light

(Ingmar Bergman, 1962)

I have to wonder if I'm loving Bergman's faith trilogy because I was raised without religion or in spite of it. Where Through a Glass Darkly was about the misguided reliance upon God - and its devastating consequences - Winter Light is about the struggle to come to terms with God's absence. Despite essentially spending 80 minutes watching someone attempt to work through a problem I never had, I was completely enraptured by Winter Light, which I would say I enjoyed even more than Through a Glass Darkly.

I think a big part of this is something that Peter Cowie said on the bonus material (he has excellent insights on all three films). Winter Light isn't exclusively about a priest, or even about God, but instead about someone who has dedicated their life to something, only to realize they don't believe in it. The main character could easily be a doctor or a lawyer (probably not a blogger, though) and this makes the film even more universal than movies about religion usually are.

Apart from the intense emotional impact of the film, two technical things about Winter Light really blew me away. The first was the structure of the screenplay, which takes place over just a few hours. It begins with one service - the empty process - and concludes with the beginning of another. Yet the core of the film is a deconstruction of that process, a confrontation with what is performed and why. The movie is essentially a response to that first scene, and everything which follows is a rejection of the routine, the unquestioned traditions.

The second thing is Sven Nykvist's camerawork, which is extremely stark and striking. The scene in which the priest goes to see the body of the man he has essentially driven to suicide could have easily been lifted from a film noir. It's such an unusual sequence for Bergman, but is so emotionally effective that you hardly think about its place in the film until long after seeing it. Nykvist was one of the great cinematographers of all time, and would go on to work with Bergma acolyte Woody Allen on a few of his films, including Allen's own moral dilemma movie Crimes and Misdemeanors. Though Bergman had worked with other cinematographers in the 50s, he would stick with Nykvist after The Virgin Spring, which was the first full collaboration they had. Nykvist's work on the Faith Trilogy must have made Bergman very happy with his decision.

One last thing about Winter Light that has me a tad confused. Cowie views the ending of the film, in which the priest begins his sermon to an audience of just one, the woman he has just rejected, as an optimistic one, since Bergman is saying even if you only reach one person it is worthwhile. Personally, I was pretty wrecked by the ending, and felt that it was anything but positive. I don't know if I'm wrong or if Bergman purposefully left this open to interpretation. Either way, Winter Light is a remarkable film, and worthy follow up to Through a Glass Darkly.

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