The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Through a Glass Darkly (1961/Sweden/dir. Ingmar Bergman) appeared at #41 on my original list.
What it is • Four characters - Karin (Harriet Andersson), who has just been treated for schizophrenia, her novelist father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), her husband Martin (Max von Sydow), and her naive little brother Minus (Lars Passgard) - holiday on an isolated island. Emerging from the twilit sea, their boisterous laughter flickers on the soundtrack. The water looks cold, the light in the sky is dimming, and there is a fierce beauty to this image of fragile camaraderie. The chill they flee in this opening shot will catch up to them over the approaching night and following day, effecting a full transformation from curious, nervous innocence to devastating, irrevocable knowledge: most notably for the quietest character, Minus. The first film in Bergman's "Silence of God" trilogy may, in its own way, be as iconic as The Seventh Seal. Its title, borrowed from Corinthians, has become a kind of shorthand for "serious art film" and its final twist is up there with the split faces of Persona or Death playing chess among classic Bergman images (though I'll admit when I first read about it as an over-imaginative kid, I thought they actually showed the damn spider sneaking out from behind the door, like in a monster movie...or like the oddly terrifying "god" marionette who pops out of a similar door in Bergman's much later Fanny and Alexander). The trailer for the film intones, through stodgy newspaper clippings (recommended by Bosley Crowther and the Academy Awards!) and somber, eat-your-vegetables narration, that this is A Very Serious Film for what Pauline Kael called "come dressed as the sick soul of Europe parties." But Through a Glass Darkly is as raw as it is austere. Buried in the severity of its reputation is the heartbreaking beauty of Sven Nykvist's gorgeous photography and Andersson's electric performance, a sensitive portrayal of madness. Although that's not quite correct...the film may be less about the direct experience of insanity than about the precarious nature of a moment's peace, the certainty that the drop is coming, and a vague euphoric thrill just before a precipitous descent.
Why I like it •
Bergman's prolific oeuvre will appeal to different people in different ways - some may celebrate the formal perfection of Cries and Whispers, others the nervy energy of Summer with Monika, while still others are keen on the thoughtful, relaxed precision of Wild Strawberries. There's still one more film from the director to appear on this list (he has four titles, more than anyone else) but in some ways Through a Glass Darkly may be the archetypal Bergman for me. Like most of his best work, it tiptoes along the line between cold, dried-up apathy toward life and painful exposure to its strongest emotional eddies. The film is spare in characters, location, and passage of time yet contains multitudes, suggesting a crushing past and a terrifying future beyond its own limited bounds. It is not afraid to be explicit in its dialogue - voicing the characters' anxieties with remarkable candor - yet much of its effect can't be articulated in words, a feeling triggered by Bergman's exquisite use of image and sound. The filmmaker's touch carries the wisdom of a veteran alongside the fearless energy of youth (in his early forties, Bergman had already directed twenty-two features). And Andersson's Karin is one of the great characters in his body of work, a figure of concern for the other three characters but, in the film's most powerful moments, a solitary subject whose perceptions elevate the film, elating us in the moment and leaving us exhausted when we come out the other end...as she is unable to.
More from me • A clip appears at 4:58 in "Sixties Rising", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series.
How you can see it • Through a Glass Darkly streams on Hulu and is available on DVD from Netflix.
What do you think? • Do you consider this the highlight of Bergman's "trilogy" (despite its fame, it may be less acclaimed than Winter Light or The Silence)? What is your favorite Andersson performance? With its first-time use of the island of Faro (where the director would shoot many subsequent films and which he would adopt as his home for about half his life), do you sense a new beginning for Bergman?
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Yesterday: The Mother and the Whore (#42)
Tomorrow: Daisies (#40)