Friday, October 26, 2007

Winter Light

Winter Light: Rarely has a film been so un-self-conscious in its willingness to debate the problem of God's existence. And yet, by placing its baldly articulated theological discussions at the center of the film, Ingmar Bergman ensures that the work's effect is consciously muted, often leaving the viewer with the impression of sitting in at a colloquium rather than looking at a work of cinema. The film's extraordinary evocation of a barren, isolating world and its unique ability to capture the poignance of ordinary faces in a series of remarkable close-ups, the product of Bergman's keen eye and Sven Nykvist's stark black-and-white photography, establish an apt aesthetic correlative for the film's verbal dialectics, but, at nearly every moment, the work threatens to devolve into little more than a filmed theological roundtable. That it never quite crosses the line into talky abstraction is the result of Bergman's absolute commitment to his material as well the rigors of his aesthetic conception, but this dangerous balance points up the perils of the director's approach.

The film takes as its central problem the silence of God in the face of an increasingly destructive modernity. Forced to confront his own dubious faith when a parishioner brings up the difficulty of belief in a world continually under the threat of nuclear destruction (China's recent announcement of its atomic capabilities standing in for the annihilative instincts of the century), Pastor Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand) outlines the problems of faith in a series of discussions with the disillusioned parishioner (Max von Sydow), an ex-lover (Ingrid Thulin) and a saintly hunchbacked sexton (Allan Edwal), the only character who seems capable of a genuine belief. Unable to reconcile his notion of a benevolent God with a destructive and isolating world (a world made palpable through the film's sparse settings and stark cinematography), Ericsson, at the height of his desolation, articulates a desire to accept the non-existence of God because only then would the world make sense, but he is ultimately as incapable of giving in to this lack of belief as he is of fully accepting the existence of a compassionate deity. Forced to struggle from a middle ground between faith and godlessness, Ericsson's position comes to represent something like the universal state of conflicted modern man.

Most of Bergman's films court a very specific type of danger: the director's tendency to let his weighty dialogue do most of the work. This is not to say that he is unconcerned with the visual aesthetics of his films; indeed, he has a strong eye for composition and is especially attuned to the possibilities of expression in the human face. Still, whatever aesthetic achievements his films offer frequently register as little more than a setting for the treatment of the work's true concerns, which are generally conveyed primarily through dialogue. Since the dialogue, for all its seriousness of purpose, is often somewhat less than profound, this creates a genuine problem in the director's aesthetic conception. This problem is certainly one that must be acknowledged in any assessment of Winter Light since, more than most of Bergman's films, it partakes of this dangerous reliance on the spoken word and, ultimately, this reliance is what prevents the film from entering the first rank of the director's work.

Yet, if we evaluate the film within the framework Bergman has created, it offers a number of gratifications: a clearly articulated presentation of the very real spiritual predicament faced by not only outwardly religious figures, but anyone who takes the fate of humanity seriously; a rather stunning evocation of a world stripped bare of adornment and any sense of comfort, with the wide open spaces of the church separating rather than bringing together its parishioners; a series of sharply-defined close-ups that seem to capture the essence of the characters, most famously in an uncut six-minute portrait of Ingrid Thulin, but also in a telling shot of Gunnar Björnstrand that distills the film's essence into one remarkably cinematic image. After Ericsson learns of the death of his conflicted parishioner, Bergman trains the camera on his face, framing him by a window, the screen filled with a neutral white light. Slowly, Nykvist's camera zooms in, coming to a stop as Björnstrand's head nearly fills the screen. The Pastor cries out "My Lord, why hast thou forsaken me?" echoing Christ's famous words, words that will be repeated in a later discussion between the Pastor and his sexton. Having captured Ericsson at the lowest point in his spiritual crisis, Bergman slowly allows the camera to move back from his face, returning to its initial position, isolating the Pastor in a cloud of whiteness. It is this sense of isolation, expressed throughout the film in Bergman's framing, in the wide spaces of the church, in Ericsson's rejection of the possibility of female love, and in the acute spiritual crises of the characters that stands as the inevitable result of the sense of impending catastrophe and the corresponding loss of the ability to believe that afflicts nearly everyone in the director's universe. Only in his conclusion does Bergman offer a measure of hope, but it is his evocation of despair that stays with the viewer. Ultimately, we must take Bergman on his own terms. If we are willing to accept these terms, we are rewarded with a particularly resonant articulation of a uniquely modern sense of crisis that we are able to get from few other filmmakers.

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