Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
Ingmar Bergman's Cries And Whispers (aka: Viskingar och Rop) is astonishingly focused and
precise in its storytelling. Two sisters, Maria and Karin, watch over and care for their dying sister
Agnes in their country home. Anna, the young maid, assists. This simple premise is enough for Bergman
to use as a means of exploring guilt, failure and the passing of time. Like the best filmmakers,
Bergman amplifies on one central idea rather than striving to create some intricately plotted piece.
Without sounding trite, Cries And Whispers is exemplary of classical European cinema. The film is deliberately paced and dwells on the moment. Early on in the film, Bergman holds a close up of the pained, dying Agnes for two minutes. In fact, this film is very much about the close up - giving expression to the internal frustrations and regrets of the characters. Set almost entirely within the confines of the house the film opens out at its end.
Cries And Whispers is a spiritual film, rather in the way that several Scorsese films are but without the whiz bang that characterises the American approach. Though based on a bleak premise - the last days of a dying woman - Cries And Whispers culminates with the positive outcomes of pain and suffering. Throughout the film are references to religious festivals - notably Easter. The sisters, Karin and Maria, wrestle with regret and guilt as the story uses flashbacks between their attending to Agnes. With its shots of clocks and the sound of clocks ticking the motif of time passing is evident from the start.
The film is austerely designed, befitting the characters' austere lifestyles and difficulty in expressing emotion. Only at the end is there really a release. Frequently the film resembles a painting. Its use of predominantly red is contrasted with the placement of white in the décor, clothing and placement of a white rose. The stillness of the camera emphasises the intensity. This is not a cinema of distraction but of focus. The film is far from theatrical, though, with its use of close ups, of sound and silence and of fades to red throughout. Long-time Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist shot the film, his use of natural lighting countering the theatrically styled environment.
For those who are not so familiar with European cinema, Bergman's films are certainly a good way in. Whilst they demand a readiness to adapt to a different, slower rhythm than most films ask, they are not difficult films to watch. If anything, they are more human and true than a lot of genre based material. There is something real about them. But then this is a longstanding characteristic of so much European cinema. Cries And Whispers bears repeated viewing and powerfully explores a range of emotions, fears and hopes common to everyone. Although it is 30 years old now, the film remains powerful, unsettling and memorable.