Cries and Whispers is second Bergman's movie that I saw, first was Wild Strawberries. If you see these two movies, Bergman's affection to death and coldness in relationships seems too evident. May be it is amateurish to make such a statement, especially when you have seen only two movies of his, but the skill he shows in dealing with these emotions prompts you to believe that.
Cries and Whispers revolves round dying Agnes, her two sisters, Karin and Maria and their maid Anna. Although nothing much is told about Agnes past but it looks she is more warm then her sisters and long for some closeness with her sisters which she never receives. She only receives some real warmth and closeness from Anna. The relationship between Anna and Agnes could be seen as erotic but there are enough evidences that Anna is the motherly by heart and Agnes longs for that affection at her deathbed.
We see Karin, Maria and Anna in flashbacks. Karin is cold due to her ice-cold marriage. In the flashback, the scene at the dining table and bedroom paints a picture of Karin as an emotionally and sexually starved woman in anguish due to a dry relationship with her husband. This coldness and inability to connect with others becomes clear with her encounters with Maria where she stops any closeness and declares that she hate her. Although she later try to patch up with Maria but at that time Maria closes the doors. Karin with her seemingly hard exteriors is quite broken inside, she reminds of Erika of The Piano Teacher at times.
Maria is self obsessed beauty who witnesses the her wounded husband with fear but didn't reach to help him. Maria has an affair with Agnes' Doctor. In one of the most directly poetic scenes of the movie, Doctor narrates the minute but subtle changes that have come in Maria's face features since the time he met her first, depicting that Maria has gone manipulate and calculating with time and lost her innocence.
Anna seems the only kind character here, who is truly moved my Agnes' pain and try to console her by showing her all motherly love. The contrast between these characters is glaringly evident during the gruesome death sequence of Agnes where Karin and Maria couldn't conceal their coldness and not able to bridge the distance to come close to Agnes but Anna comes forward to help Agnes in her last moments. In one of the sequences, Anna cradles dead Agnes in her lap, that frame is almost picture perfect.
Cries and Whispers is superbly acted. The best of the them is Harriet Andersson as Agnes. Her painful death scenes is difficult to endure because of her compelling act. Kari Sylwan show all the traits of a mother in her portrayal of Anna. And there is cinematography which is nothing short of brilliant and soulful. Although Cries and Whispers is about darker sides of the life but you see different shades of red scattered all over. Bergman said that he used red because he think it is color of the soul. These stylistic flourishes makes a Cries and Whispers stunning to watch. Other mastery is shown in close-up department. I have heard that Bergman usually puts close ups of actresses, but he goes far enough to give you close ups of candles, clocks, flowers, letters in addition to the stunning close ups of stunning female cast.
Cries and Whispers works on a level that a few movies even aspire for. This masterpiece is usually considered a testimonial about death but to me it seemed to question more about life and its ways, bridges in relationships, warmth of closeness and coldness of mental distances.