Top positive review
Thematically Complex, Emotionally Intense
on 3 May 2017
Two phrases which could, no doubt, be used to describe much of Ingmar Bergman’s (particularly 'mid to late’ period) cinema and certainly a pairing that applies to this 1963 work, exploring the impassioned, mercurial sibling relationship between Ingrid Thulin’s seriously ill translator, Ester, and Gunnel Lindblom’s brazen, carefree, Anna. Thus, as well as signifying one of the film’s key themes, that of communication breakdown (both personal and that between cultures), the early scene where Anna’s 10-year old son, Johan (played by Jörgen Lindström), on espying a train carriage sign, asks his aunt (Ester) 'What does that mean?’ is a pointer to likely audience reaction to much of Bergman’s frequently oblique narrative here. Repeat viewings, however, do help to crystallise themes – specifics around (the aforementioned) communication, sexuality, love, maternity and (absence of) spirituality, all within the wider context of the complexity of the human condition – and presented in a visually stunning, symbolically rich and emotionally engaging way. But, suffice to say, there are no easy answers and it’s a film which continually provokes thought and is likely to elicit a range of opinions.
Bergman’s chosen settings – a train, then hotel room in an unnamed, but seemingly Central European, war-torn country, peopled by (mostly) zombie-like inhabitants speaking an undeciphered language – plays up the film’s (difficulties with) communication theme, as does the increasingly fractious sister relationship (the latter inspired by Anna’s heterosexual desires in the wake of what was, seemingly, a previously incestuous association). The increasing separation felt by the sisters is symbolically (and skilfully) represented by Bergman’s repeated depiction of doors and doorways, whilst the film’s communication barriers are memorably alleviated by the repeated featuring of the music of J S Bach. Set against the film’s depiction of sisterhood is its take on motherhood. Here, there is genuine affection for Johan, interestingly though, more pronounced in his aunt than mother. Johan acts as the film’s chief observer (or 'narrator’ or perhaps even 'film director’), patrolling the hotel corridors and lightening the mood via his encounters with a theatrical troupe of dwarves. Lindström is excellent in his depiction, mixing innocent, playful, bored, curious, loving and confused.
Each of Lindblom and Thulin are outstanding here, but particularly the latter. Ester’s mental and physical deterioration is starkly portrayed, exacerbated by Anna’s libidinous behaviour – particularly memorable are Ester’s wide-eyed reactions to each of her sister’s indiscretions. Any hint of glamour in Thulin is thoroughly washed away until the actress (for me) bears an uncanny resemblance to later Bergman regular, Liv Ullmann – (perhaps) coincidentally the co-star of the Bergman film, Persona (made three years later), to which The Silence bears a number of similarities. The reading of Ester and Anna as being potentially two halves of one personality (as in the later film) is certainly invited, plus the appearance of Lindström in the later film and, here, the familiar juxtaposition of the sisters’ profiles all reinforce the resemblances. The other particularly notable feature of The Silence is its sexual explicitness, which, ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, turned it into a (rare) box office hit for Bergman.
In the end, the film’s predominantly despairing, pessimistic trajectory – the breakdown of a seemingly once loving relationship against a backdrop of widespread, anonymous military conflict – is lent a glimmer of forward-looking hope via Johan’s thoughtful curiosity. In any event, the interpretive challenge presented by Bergman’s film is one that is well worth taking up, I would suggest, as it can lead, ultimately, to rich rewards.