Saturday, December 15, 2018

Ingmar Bergman | Nattvardsgästerna (Winter Light)

the betrayals of christ
by Douglas Messerli

Ingmar Bergman (writer and director) Nattvardsgästerna (Winter Light) / 1963

Generally linked with Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly of 1961, and The Silence, released later in 1963, Bergman’s Winter Light is at the center of a trilogy about mid-to-late-life angst and loss of faith, themes which interlink these works with many of this director’s films.

     Indeed, in some respects, the pastor at the heart of this drama, Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand), is related to the cruel bishop, Edvard Vergérus who Emelie Ekdahl marries after her husband Oscar’s death. And like the Bishop, Tomas, who has also lost his wife, is partially responsible for a death, in this case a parishioner in crisis, Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow), who terrified by the cultural, political, and financial rise of the Chinese—an oddly contemporary concern—brings him to lose the belief that the world will survive, a theme that further resonates with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Swedish-made film, The Sacrifice, particularly when the fisherman Jonas commits suicide after meeting with the pastor to discuss his fears.
     On top of this, Tomas, who has been having a secret affair since the death of his wife with the local school teacher, Märta (Ingrid Thulin), chooses this day to declare how much he despises her, while still taking her along to Jonas’ house to tell that man’s pregnant wife, Karin (Gunnel Lindblom) of her husband’s death.
    Beyond that, Tomas is suffering from the symptoms of a very bad cold, and even more importantly is rapidly losing his entire congregation. By day’s end no one shows up for his evening service, despite that fact that he orders the bells rung and moves forward to a homily delivered to only his staff.
   Even if this might be represented as a kind of survival tale, a story of a man who, despite all evidence to the contrary, is still able to declare that “God is holy and that all the earth is full of His glory,” we recognize there is no glory any longer in Tomas’ small-town world. He is now been emptied of everything that might have represented as a glorious world, he unable to deal with his own disbelief, without love, and without even a purpose in his life—with no one there to whom he can preach what he himself perceives as lies.
   Bergman fills in his barebones plot with intense conversations which involve his various discussions with others, with Märta and through her schoolmarm pronunciations argues that Tomas needs her simply because cannot to continue to exist without love; his failed communications with Jonas; and even the arguments of his loyal sexton, Algot Frövik (Allan Edwall) who poses some of the deepest questions of this film: Why is so much time of the story of Christ’s life spent on his crucifixion and death, when Christ had to live his life with the betrayal of his beloved communicants and God himself. It is both God and man who work together to destroy the faith that some posit into the world, and the issue is at the heart of this film's believers, including the non-believing Karin and the abused Märta, the latter of whom finally in the last scenes begins to pray.
    I suppose for many who no longer believe in religion, Bergman’s film, in this case, might seem almost an artifact from a culture plagued by fears of insignificance and doubt, stirred up by the long, dark winters in a country just too close to the arctic tundra.
     As a non-believer, I too feel that if only these tortured individuals might free themselves from their deeply religious reflections, they could move out into the world again with love, faith in the future, and some realization of why they are on earth.
     Yet, even if you were to remove the religious constraints on these individuals, I fear that what lies behind their fears—strong senses of doubt about their own abilities, hatred of themselves and others, and just fear of the future—might not be erased. Within the “winter light” through they see through the “glass darkly,” their visions, religious or not, are distorted. In order to be made to feel worthy of the light, Bergman seems to suggest, they need to find some feelings within themselves that could help them redeem their lives. Perhaps prayer, Märta’s solution, is all they can hope for. Or, as in the final sequence of this trio of dark films, turning inward to a kind of silence that in simply listening to others and the self they might find a way to truth. Perhaps it was not Christ who has betrayed us in our doubts, so the director suggests, but we who have again betrayed Christ. Accordingly, this film becomes a strangely reconfirming work to be seen near Christmas.

Los Angeles, December 15, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2018).

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