Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Winter Light

Winter Light (1962) begins with the end of one church service and concludes with the start of another. In the former, the pastor preaches mechanically to about eight people while the second congregation consists of a non-believer, the organist, and the sexton, and in between the services, the pastor laments "God's silence." Is the service at the end a reaffirmation of the pastor's faith or his doubt?

Directed by Ingmar Bergman, Winter Light is a movie in which not a whole lot happens. The running time barely exceeds 80 minutes; there are only a handful of incidents, confrontations, speeches, and exchanges; and the pace is deliberately slow to the point it's easy to imagine people growing impatient while watching it. Yet, I remained involved throughout the film, and I'm not entirely sure why. The acting, cinematography, and direction are superlative, but I can't call the movie enjoyable. Something about it just speaks to me.

These are questions that have surely been asked by even the most devout of believers: is there a God, and if He exists, why doesn't He show Himself? Bergman himself tackled the question previously in The Seventh Seal . Here, the question does not haunt a knight returning from the Crusades to confront his mortality; it is the obsession of a pastor, a man who has spent his life in the service of his faith and now has come to question the meaning of it all. If The Seventh Seal is about trying to maintain faith and hope in the face of death, Winter Light is more about finding meaning while living in a world that feels devoid of it.

The film opens with Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand), suffering from the the flu, giving his noon service to a small crowd, among them his former mistress, Marta (Ingrid Thulin), an atheist who regularly asks him to marry her. Also in attendance are Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) and his pregnant wife Karin (Gunnel Lindblom). Following the service, Mrs. Persson asks Tomas to speak with her husband, suicidally despondent after learning China is developing the atomic bomb. Tomas tries to talk with Jonas, but he can offer no comfort or answers, only his own doubts and fears. All this and more occurs before the next service scheduled for 3 p.m. in the next town over.

The world shown in Winter Light is cold and barren. Snow covers the land and continues to fall on it, the church itself is vast and empty, and iconography of Christ on the Cross, always looming over Tomas, has fallen into disrepair with fingers missing from the one of the hands. Tomas, feeling so weak physically and alone spiritually, leans his head often against the wall of his office, gazing out a window that resembles a prison's. Bergman uses numerous closeups, both of individuals and of two people simultaneously, to really capture the characters' emotions through every movement and feature on their faces and their sense of isolation. Black and white is the perfect choice for this film, highlighting the shadows of the face.

Tomas' conversation with Jonas is the first instance of drama in the movie. Jonas goes to Tomas at his wife's insistence for guidance, just as Tomas turns to God, but unlike God who is silent, Tomas says perhaps too much, revealing his own lack of certainty and neurotic, paralyzing doubt. In some ways, Tomas, a man of the cloth, acts as God's representative in this church, and like God, he seems to offer no support or satisfactory answers, only regret and despair.

This is revealed through a number of monologues in the film, times when the narrative halts for the characters to lay bare their emotions and strike at the hearts of others. The first of which is a letter to Tomas from Marta, his reading of it dramatized by a close, unbroken shot of her speaking directly to the camera for nearly six minutes in which she tells him she loves him even after he rejected her and became repulsed by rashes on her hands. The intimacy of the confession is matched later when he confronts her with the knowledge he can never love her because she will never be like his late wife and goes on about all the things about her he doesn't like. For this monologue, Bergman cuts back and forth between faces -Tomas' and Marta's - to illustrate both his cold, unmoving indifference and and her crushed, heartbroken tears.

The final and most hopeful monologue in the film comes from Algot, the hunchbacked sexton (Allan Edwell). Alone with Tomas before the 3:00 service, he discusses the passion of Jesus, noting it was not the physical pain that must have hurt Christ the most but the spiritual agony. With his disciples having abandoned him and his Father having seemingly forsaken him, Jesus must have agonized in those final moments about whether anyone got his message, Algot says.

Isn't that one of the central questions of existence? Do our actions make any impact? Did we achieve what we set out to achieve, and did it have meaning? How does one live without knowing the answer? These are the questions that torment Tomas as they must have tortured Christ. At the end, when no one else arrives for the second service and it looks like it will be cancelled, Tomas begins nonetheless. After all, there is one person in the pew: Marta, and that is affirmation enough.

No comments:

Post a Comment