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Faith trilogy by Ingmar Bergman

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Through A Glass Darkly
cast: Max Von Sydow, Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand, and Lars Passgard

director: Ingmar Bergman

89 minutes (15) 1961
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
The first part of what has come to be known as 'the faith trilogy' with Winter Light and The Silence, Through A Glass Darkly finds Bergman, the son of a priest, confronting his own agnosticism and doubt. This is the first film he shot on the island of Faro, where he ended up living. The film won the 1962 Oscar for best foreign language film.

Bergman was once a byword for gloomy introspection, a particular kind of Scandinavian angst that merited the adjective Bergmanesque. Famously influential on Woody Allen, and once blamed for the latter's fall from favour with his switch from popular comedies to 'serious' filmmaking, before Allen's personal life made him just plain disliked.

Interest in Bergman seems to have been rekindled with the re-issue of some of his films following his death in 2007, although he had already made a lasting impression on popular culture; the image of a knight playing chess with Death from The Seventh Seal has become both iconic and a rich source for parody.

David (Gunnar Bjornstrand, Winter Light) a writer with some commercial success who craves critical recognition, has returned from Switzerland to holiday with his daughter Karin (Harriet Andersson, Dogville), her husband Martin (Max von Sydow, The Exorcist, Minority Report), as well as his son Fredrik known as 'Minus' (Lars Passgard), in a cottage on the island of Faro. Karin has recently returned from hospital where she seems to have earned a respite from mental problems, but Martin reveals to David that this may only be remission and the doctors have suggested she may be incurable. The four enjoy a meal together and David distributes gifts, which the others suspect he has bought at the airport. David leaves the meal after announcing he will be going away again and alone in the house he is racked with sobs. Minus feels he has never properly talked with his father, he has expressed to his sister some lonely anguish, and may be wrestling with his sexuality. Karin for her part teases and flirts with Minus beyond what one would expect from a sister. The two perform a play for their father, which may be a satire on his artistic pretensions.

Karin and Martin go to bed where Karin is unable to respond to Martin's desire for her. She is woken by bird cries, and walks to a neglected part of the cottage, where she hears whispering from behind the wallpaper and convulses with an orgasm. She goes to her father's room and he tucks her into his bed while he writes at his desk. When David goes off with Minus, Karin reads in her father's diary that her illness is incurable and that he has the detached desire as a writer to record her decline. Karin reveals to Martin what she has read in the diary.

David and Martin go fishing and Martin attacks David for his pretensions and his intellectual remoteness. David in turn reveals that while he has been away he tried to commit suicide but having failed discovered within himself a deep love for the other three. Alone on the island Karin finds Minus with a pornographic magazine, her teasing and flirting increase until a sudden storm sends her terrified to shelter in the hull of a wreck. Minus goes to comfort her and she draws him down to kiss her but turns her head away and pulls him on top of her.

Karin has slipped back into her troubled state and the two men call the air ambulance on their return. Karin reveals that she has passed through the wallpaper of the abandoned room and discovered a crowd of people there waiting for the arrival of God. While the others watch her she stands waiting for her epiphany, the closet door swings open but she is distracted by the sight of the helicopter ambulance through the window, and has an attack of screaming terror. She reveals that the God she has seen was a rapacious spider.

Alone in the house a terrified Minus confesses to his father that in the wreck Karin's descent into madness breached his own hold on reality. David reveals that his own experiences have led him to believe that love is the only constant and that love may even be what we call God. Minus is reassured that his and David and Martin's love for her may save Karin, and furthermore he is overjoyed that his father has at last talked to him.

Bergman uses his great cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and the light on the faces of the actors makes them almost archetypal characters; the original music is by Erik Nordgren, although he is un-credited, and the aural soundtrack of foghorns like bowed instruments, and excessively loud drips and creaking floorboards creates its own ominous atmosphere.

This 'chamber piece', in Bergman's own description, might be seen as an overly grim way of spending an hour and a half, with its air of inevitable tragedy, with a possibility of hope at the end of it all. This kind of study is of course what making films used to be about, and still can be, and was as true of Hollywood as of the cream of European art house cinema. The story and the performances are absorbing, the complexity of the emotions and motivation are beguiling and yet presented in simple scenes that stay with you. What is enlightening is the sense that the director himself is using the medium to examine concepts that he has not made up his own mind about. There is no judgement of the characters, David is flawed but impossible to condemn, Martin who at first appears estimable and beyond reproach may be guilty of a certain amount of selfishness. The film rewards attention and even flatters the viewer into at least the conceit that they have some insight of their own. This film will not be to everyone's taste but is a relatively painless introduction to the depths and strange beauty of this filmmaker.

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