Saturday, June 1, 2019

Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna)

Director Ingmar Bergman on the set

Bergman on the set with actress Ingrid Thulin

WINTER LIGHT (Nattvardsgästerna)                      A-                   
Sweden  (81 mi)  1963 d:  Ingmar Bergman

God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Of all the Bergman films, this most reflects his painful childhood upbringing, the son of a strict Lutheran minister, regularly assisting his father in his duties around the church, hearing his pious sermons that promised love and forgiveness, yet once home, he was punished severely for the slightest offenses, a victim of extreme discipline and unbending righteousness, finding himself constantly at odds with his father, quickly realizing the moral hypocrisy of religion, as what one practices is not what one preaches, gravitating towards an illusionary world, that of magic and make believe, staging his own puppet shows for the family before studying theater in college, becoming the youngest theater manager in Europe at the age of 26.  Amongst all his films, this is easily the starkest and most severe, where the embittered tone can be unsettling, spared down to its bare essence as a small-town pastor Tomas Ericsson (aptly named because St. Thomas doubted the resurrection of Christ), played with a stern rigidity by Gunnar Björnstrand, who had a fever from the flu during filming, maximized to great effect by Bergman as he struggles with his loss of faith, preaching to a near empty congregation, believing he is leading a meaningless existence.  In structure and design, the film resembles Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d'un curé de campagne) (1951), but it lacks the optimism and transcendent quality of a Bresson film, feeling darker and more hopeless, with a deeply brooding Tomas stuck in an existential void.  The second of his Faith Trilogy exploring the silence of God, following Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spegel) (1961), it’s his most austere film, recalling the spare minimalism of Carl Theodor Dreyer in a film like ORDET (1955), using long takes and close-ups to provide a shocking intimacy, expressing a confessional quality, as if hoping for a redemption that never comes.  Preoccupied by loneliness and human suffering, it is shot by Sven Nykvist in the icy cold of bleak wintry conditions in Northern Sweden, with people isolated and closed off from one another, living in a remote countryside setting revealing vast distances between one another, with Tomas supposedly the connecting tissue holding the social fabric together, yet he doubts his calling, questioning the nature of religion in the modern world, repeating an age-old sacred ritual of communion inside the church that has lost all meaning to the pastor, yet he dutifully performs it over and over again, becoming an exhaustive and painful examination of his holy mission.  Interestingly, the brief conversation between father and son that concludes Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spegel) becomes the central theme of this film, questioning whether God is love when ordinary lives fail to live up to the sacrificial teachings of Christ, which the modern world has completely abandoned.      

While many find this Bergman’s most perfect film, it’s certainly the shortest and most concise, stripped of all non-essentials, demonstrating an absolute refusal to compromise, yet beautifully written, with the director claiming this as his own personal favorite, while also championed by Andrei Tarkovsky, The Top 10 Favorite Films of Legendary Director Andrei Tarkovsky.  It may exorcise personal demons from his childhood, yet may also be too dour in tone, overly oppressive, with melodramatic excess, with man existing in a spiritual vacuum surrounded by human suffering, caught up in unending individual anguish and despair.  Tomas has an admirer that dotes upon him, Märta (Ingrid Thulin), a schoolteacher who looks after him affectionately as his mistress for the past two years since his wife died five years earlier, yet he keeps his distance, leaving him a shell of his former self, utterly void of love in his own life, yet maintaining his responsibilities, hoping to convey the spirit of Christ’s love in the church.  Despite his doubts, he never betrays his social mission to the community, as if that is the only respite from a life in isolation.  The futility of his position, however, is revealed when one of his parishioners wants spiritual reassurance from their pastor, when a pregnant wife, Karin Persson (Gunnel Lindblom), brings her dejected husband Jonas (Max von Sydow), despondent over the news of possible nuclear annihilation, feeling overwhelmed and powerless to face up to this kind of global tragedy.  While Jonas is quiet and humble, perhaps typical of Nordic individuals bearing their own hardships, instead of understanding his plight, Tomas rambles on about his own pathetic life, not really connecting at all, perhaps making him feel worse, as shortly afterwards someone brings news that Jonas has shot himself with his own rifle, committing suicide.  As Tomas waits for the meeting with Jonas, however, a parallel story develops, as he reads a detailed letter from Märta that mercilessly assails his faults while also professing her love, with Bergman using a novel technique of having Märta face the camera and read the letter aloud in an extended soliloquy that stings with emotional realism.  Wearing no make-up, using no props, this barebones confessional is devastating in its emotional efficiency, bringing him down to size, recognizing him for who he is, warts and all, yet still she dares to enunciate her feelings for him and wants to marry him nonetheless.  It’s a powerful indictment of his failings, coming immediately prior to the visit by Jonas, perhaps influencing his own wounded pride, doing a bit of damage control afterwards, voicing his own fear and uncertainty, speaking entirely about himself, how he became a pastor, and the horrors he witnessed during the Spanish Civil War, struck by a terrifying presence of God’s silence on the battlefield, caught up in his own anguish and despair.  After Jonas leaves, however, suddenly and without a word, Tomas enters the church, but is himself overcome by an awesome power of light beaming through the windows, literally bringing him to his knees, with Märta helping him up and embracing him, but he ignores her.   

Once outdoors in the snow and icy roads, we leave the claustrophobic confinement of the church and feel a renewed sense of nature, as the body of Jonas Persson is lying at the foot of a bridge that crosses the river’s thunderous rapids, revealing a powerful natural presence, with the camera maintaining a healthy distance, even as a vehicle arrives to remove the body.  Curiously, as they drive away, Tomas and Märta stop at an open expanse to allow a train to pass by, where the puffing steam of the engine bears a strange resemblance to Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA (1960), a film about lost souls, yet the freight cars have the appearance of coffins moving rapidly across the empty landscape.  In the noise of the train, the voice of Tomas gets drowned out, a parallel for his inability to transmit a clear message of spirituality to his parishioners, with the church unable to change and adapt to modern circumstances, yet spewing the same scripture, as if by habit, an empty substitute for the real thing.  Among the more unflattering scenes is a total and complete denunciation of Märta by Tomas, refusing to spare her feelings, leaving it perfectly clear that he is repulsed by her craving for closeness, which leaves her horrified and aghast in disbelief, tears streaming down her face in utter humiliation, but Tomas continues to pile it on (much like his father’s merciless reproaches when he was a child), creating a hateful patriarchal portrait of arrogance and brutal oppression, making it all about himself, thinking nothing of others, though he goes through the motions, offering the appearance of caring when in fact he despises others just as much as he despises himself.  This feeling of self-loathing is exactly what Märta was attempting to heal, selflessly reaching out in the spirit of love, in a devotional service to others, but this is precisely what Tomas rejects.  If he can’t experience love, from God or his dead wife, then he doesn’t wish it for others as well, developing a calloused view of humanity, yet he continues to preach the same sermon that he no longer believes.  His inner sanctum has turned to moral rot, displaying no compassion whatsoever, stuck in an abyss of emptiness where love and forgiveness once prevailed.  Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the film is not the sickly Tomas, but the other secondary characters, as we feel for Märta’s rude treatment, as well as Jonas and his unspeakable pain, for Karin Persson raising a family alone, but also for Algot (Allan Edwall), a deformed hunchback who helps around the church, lighting the candles, ringing the church bells, which he does purely out of devotional belief.  Unlike Tomas, he continues to have faith, yet questions other aspects of Christ’s journey that matter to him, which become the central focus near the end, offering all manner of relevant insight into Christ’s suffering, which is something he could identify with as a human living with unbearable pain.  What’s remarkable are the human acts of compassion taken for granted, as they’re not offered out of some religious conviction, but simple human kindness.  Märta is a professed atheist, yet understands the importance of love, even if Tomas rebuffs her.  As if out of nowhere, Algot becomes the spiritual conscience of the film, chatting away endlessly, yet magnificently, though he hasn’t a clue the greater implications his words have in the film, as for him it’s all in a day’s labor, where he’s simply espousing what’s on his mind.  But for viewers, his knowledge and humble wisdom are urgently compelling, as he’s speaking of the divine.  Though Tomas is experiencing an existential crisis of faith, having lost contact with all spiritual meaning, he carries out the church rituals anyway, performing meaningless gestures, a pathetic display of what the church has become. 

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