This might be the beginning of Late-Period Bergman – I’ve seen none before except Persona. He was the son of a major pastor, and the DVD extras say he was “coming to terms with religious baggage of his past” in this thematic trilogy. He “renounced a lot of the expressionism of the 50’s that he’d been known for,” but the compositions, in less stark black-and-white than before, are still striking.
Karin (Harriet Andersson: Monika, Petra in Smiles of a Summer Night) is on Bergman’s beloved island of Faro with younger brother Minus (Lars Passgard, who would not be a Bergman regular), husband Max von Sydow, and father Gunnar Bjornstrand (self-important Egerman in Smiles, Sydow’s challenger in The Magician). Things start out on shaky ground – she’s just back from psychiatric hospital where she got shock treatment, and when dad gets a moment alone he sobs in his office – and only get worse. An hour in, I was wondering which one of them would commit suicide – each seemed pretty likely – then a moment later Gunnar started speaking of his suicide attempt.
Karin finds her novelist dad’s diary about her illness. Minus gets caught looking at dirty pictures, always seems on the edge of panic, has incestual complications. Max is getting no love from his crazy wife, starts a bitter fight with Gunnar over his creative bankruptcy and exploitation of his daughter’s illness. But Karin is worse off than they realize, starts standing in an empty room staring at a crack in the wallpaper and insisting that God is going to come through.
“Your faith and your doubt are very unconvincing. All that’s apparent is your ingenuity.” Harsh words spoken by a character within a film series about faith and doubt. “Don’t you think I know that,” Gunnar responds, a bit of Bergman self-criticism, doubt about his own doubtfulness.
“The door opened, but the God that came out was a spider,” Karin says, resigned to a horrible fate just before the ambulance takes her away again. “Papa spoke to me” are the movie’s final words, a glimmer of hope from poor Minus.
P. Matthews on the Euro-arthouse films of the early 1960’s:
The denuded purity of its sacred texts was an implicit rebuke to Hollywood budgetary decadence, just as their oracular obscurity challenged a feel-good escapism whose meanings were only too pat.
A reprieve is nonetheless granted through earthly love – a coda shows the aloof father chastened and struggling to bond with his neglected son. That the director himself found this optimism facile can be judged from the diminishing spiritual returns in the trilogy, culminating in the almost total cosmic nullity of The Silence.