Perhaps the most amazing thing about Bergman's huge body of work is how his style continued to grow and evolve, even
as he was drawn again and again to the great questions in life; is there a God? How do we face death? What is the
meaning of being here? Can we be happy? Can people be kind to each other, or are we doomed only to cause harm? Is love real?
Yet, while the themes stay consistent, how he approached them varied wildly over 50 years of film-making, from the uber-experimental,
groundbreaking poetic surrealism of "Persona", to the highly symbolic "Seventh Seal", to his later works, more grounded in naturalism and
day-to-day realism, but no less profound for it. Pieces like "Scenes From a Marriage", or "Cries and Whispers".
These three films, which I've heard referred to as "the Faith Trilogy", "The Silence of God" trilogy, or simply "The Trilogy" as Criterion labels
them, represent a paradoxic step forward from his earlier work. On one hand they are more poetic, subtle, works - even the highly surreal
"The Silence" is more fragile and etherial than, say, the earlier "Virgin Spring". The film making is more stylized, from the never moving camera
of "Winter's Light" with it's very self conscious framings, and six minute long monologues, to the almost Fellini-esque "The Silence".
On the other hand, the performances themselves are even more grounded in the kind of understated hyper-realism that was Bergman's ever
While not my personal favorites of Bergman's work (I am most attached to his later pieces) these are still must-see, if not 'easy' films, for any
fan of grown up thoughtful film-making. The direct depth with which they ponder the meaning of existence, and the depths of despair that
struggle for meaning can bring is breathtaking, if sometimes hard to take. The work of his actors is consistently amazing, and the images are unique
These are films that only grow with time, and re-visiting, so owning copies is worth-while. There's no way to get all the levels of these
existential explorations at one go. And the Criterion transfers - as is almost always the case - are first rate.
Some specific notes on the films from my 'film diary':
Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
My personal favorite of Bergman's earlier works, I find this tremendously moving and haunting in equal degree.
Bergman is still dealing with some of the same big issues (Is there a god?, What's the meaning of art?, etc.) but now on a much more human
level. The preachiness is gone, and the characters are no longer archetypes. Just human beings struggling with the difficulties of living.
Phenomenal, understated performances all around, and beautiful cinematography more than compensate for occasional hints of staginess in
this chamber drama with just 4 characters; a father, his son and schizophrenic daughter, and her husband who loves her in spite of her illness.
All the characters are human, identifiable, occasionally ugly, and always true. This film led to me thinking much more deeply about my own
life then the impressive, but more on-the-nose cosmic questioning of 'The Seventh Seal' or even 'Wild Strawberries'.
Winter Light (1962)
I was slightly less affected by this than by `Through a Glass Darkly', which opens the trilogy, though a number of critics rank it higher, and
a couple call it one of the greatest films ever made.
Certainly, once again the acting is terrific, and the cinematography superb. More even than `Through a Glass Darkly' this film mines
the subtle shadings of the human face to an almost supernatural degree.
But this film returns to Bergman's early tendency to be more on-the-nose with his themes. It's the story itself. A pastor has
lost his faith, in the face of God's silence at the dark things of life. But in this story, just about everyone has surrendered to that
sort of hopeless depression, so the film feels more one note, more talky and `heady' than `Through a Glass Darkly', if more quiet
and subtle in its approach than the early Bergman works.
It's not just that the characters don't change that bothers me, its that it feels clear from the outset there is no hope of change, which
made me feel I'd already gotten the power of the film's questioning and aching loss (which is still considerable) long before its final moments.
None-the-less, how rewarding to see any film that is about the big questions, and addresses them in a serious, beautifully made way.
And I do find it haunting me since I've seen it.
The Silence (1963)
My first reaction was the same I've had to many of Bergman's earlier films: deep admiration, but not personal
adoration. In this case, the more extreme, self-conscious surreal style threw me off. This feels more like
something by Bunuel, Fellini, Beckett or Lynch (all of whom I love).
Two sisters, polar opposites - one sensual, emotional, promiscuous, self-centered, representing the body, the id.
The other, intellectual, sickly, sexually isolated stands for mind or super ego. The child of one, perhaps 8 years
old, is accompanying them on a train trip, heading home. We never know where they're coming from or why
they went. They stop in a city clearly preparing for war, or under some sort of military occupation. They stay
in a baroque but almost abandoned hotel, unable to communicate with anyone, since this unknown land has a
language none of them speak.
While one sister picks up lovers, and the other languishes ill in bed, the boy explores the creepy hotel ("The Shining"
was definitely influenced by this), making friends with a circus full of dwarf performers, who, pointedly, are the most
normal people in the film.
All of this is done with very little dialogue (to the point where the effect feels forced and self- conscious at times). I
had a hard time clicking in while watching the film, but images and moments have really stuck with me, and there's
good reason why so many intelligent critics think it's a masterpiece. And certainly the exploration of surrealism here
helped prepared him for the leap to one of his greatest achievements, "Persona".