Winter Light (1962)
Screen: 'Winter Light' by Bergman: Tale of Country Pastor Challenges Religion
IN a foreword for the Swedish premiere of his new film, "Winter Light," Ingmar Bergman expressed a peculiar apprehension. He said he hoped the audience would "understand," that it would leave the theater with "a definite felt experience or a suddenly acquired thought."
Thus did he candidly acknowledge that he was offering a thesis that would puzzle and disturb its viewers and bring recriminations on his head.
And well he might. This dour and chilly picture, which opened at the Beekman Theater yesterday, is a stark and unsettling exposition of the doubts and despairs that beset a Christian minister in a Swedish country parish on a winter day.
It is a piercing and painful presentation of the torment through which this man goes as he faces his meager congregation (five attendants at Holy Communion is all he has at his Sunday-morning service) and as he thereafter gravely turns aside the importunities of his mistress, a drab teacher, to take her as his wife.
There follows his pain at being unable to comfort a mute parishioner, who goes directly from the interview to commit suicide. Finally there is his anguish as he dutifully rises to conduct vesper services in an empty church.
But it is not as an isolated look at one man's struggle with his belief in God — one man's passage through his private Gethsemane — that this film is likely to be viewed. A picture from Mr. Bergman must intend, and come to, more than that. So "Winter Light" must inevitably be appraised as a contemplation of the state of Christianity today—or of the efficacy of the clerical function.
When Mr. Bergman has his pastor—whom Gunnar Bjornstrand plays with icy rigidity and aloofness — administer communion to his diminished flock with bleakly mechanical formality, it can be nothing but a slap at the emptiness of ritual. When he has him brutally repulse his pitifully doting mistress — whom Ingrid Thulin plays with almost unbearable debasement — this can be nothing but a display of the cleric's complete deficiency in the compassion and love of Jesus.
When he shows us a pastor unable to say anything to help a poor man (Max von Sydow) knotted by nightmare fears of the atomic bomb, he is surely offering his opinion on the helplessness of religious comfort in these dark times. And when he has his man cry at "God's silence," he must be meaning this as the cry of all mankind.
Surely Mr. Bergman would not make such a film without meaning it to be symbolic. And it is on the inevitable score of its shattering symbolism that he must have known it would be challenged and criticized.
The challenge is easy to muster. His pastor is patently weak, a man of acknowledged self-indulgence and dubious fortitude. Even though he is a middle-aged widower who grieves for the wife he loved, his selfish denial of his mistress cannot be excused on the ground of sentiment. For a symbol of the clergy's quality, Mr. Bergman has made a poor and fragile choice.
But the vividness with which he has presented this cold and relentless display of spiritual proverty and pathos cannot be criticized — at least, not for its expression in brilliant poetic images. Mr. Bergman's actors, as always, are as sensitive as actors can be, and his camera still frames compositions that fairly pierce one with a nameless poetry.
When at the end his pastor stands in his empty, lonely church and proclaims in the words of the service that the whole earth is full of the glory of the Lord, a vibration in the image strikes to one's marrow.
Mr. Bergman may not be praised for it, but he has made a thoughtful, engrossing, shocking film.
The English subtitles are sufficient for those who cannot get the Swedish dialogue.