There are points of doubts in everybody's life. The double about our existence, its meaning, the reason for life to live, the doubts about the existence of other worldly beliefs and concepts like God, religion, society and love. In these times of desperation and mental unrest, we tend to seek answers, try to find some truths, lot of times these excavations result in no answers but more such apparently unanswerable questions. But the beauty of such uncertainties, desperations and anxieties is that we discover life by ourselves, one more step closer. We also have a choice of escaping from these questions and most of times we rest in some comfortable looking alibis that pave way for our well-fixed self-imposed ignorance. The most standard of all these questions is about faith. This question leads to many answers but the most common is God, the one supreme power, who is supposed to listen to us mortals and alleviate all worldly sufferings. Bergman explores the question about faith, its loss and god, his non-existence in Winter Light very directly, very incisively, very provocatively.
Winter Light is the middle film in Bergman's self-doubt generated faith trilogy that starts with god-mankind relationship exploration in Through a Glass Darkly and ends with a surreal psychodrama on suffocating isolation, The Silence. I have seen The Silence too, and liked its sensual surrealism but Winter light is what I call a movie that has all the things that entertain me intellectually, it is comically sad, deeply pensive and above all very philosophical.
Set in a chilly and dour winter Sunday afternoon in a remote Swedish countryside, Winter Light shows three hours of the life of Pastor, Tomas Ericsson, who is disillusioned and deeply conflicted. For another 80 minutes we are going to witness, a strong spiritual and emotional struggles of the few who attends the Sunday morning service where the attendance is plummeting day by day, just seven people appears but the ritual are done and shown in all their clinical details in the first 10-12 minutes of the movie. This congregation includes Tomas, Tomas’s Mistress and a schoolmarm -Martha, a young fisherman couple -Jonas and pregnant Karin, an old lady and church staff. After the prayer, Karin comes with her husband, wanting to discuss a something private with the flu-ridden Tomas. As Jonas is silent from some sort of shock, Karin explains that her husband has been extremely depressed by a recent news article, according to which, the Chinese, who are raised to hate, will soon possess the atomic bomb and intent in destroying the world. Pastor was unable to console and connect with Jonas and just says some clichés like 'We must trust in God' which rather generate some more anguish in Jonas. Karin suggests going home but Jonas returns for a private conversation shortly. Meanwhile Marta comes to meet Tomas with some food and longing for some love, but Tomas shows cold-blooded neglect. Later Tomas and Marta have more radical exchanges with long Bergmanesque close-ups, that talk about their corroded relationship and Tomas inability to express love or rather his indifference towards Marta. Later Tomas gets the news that Jonas has committed suicide. Shocked by this, Tomas rushes to the site of suicide to do the Clerical functions where Marta too joins her. Tomas and Marta again have an argument, which may be considered as cruelest verbal assault, I have ever seen on screen. The movie ends where Tomas performs a yet other meaningless service at the church with even less parishioners in attendance.
The literal translation of the Swedish title is 'The Communicants' as the film talks about loss of communication between man & god and man & man. Feeling emasculated, unwanted and lonely in this wide world is a common feeling that all characters share at certain point in the film. Lonely and neglected Marta is searching for some love in the heart of dry and doubtful Tomas. Conflicted Tomas felt almost impotent to answer what Jonas is worried about, and felt even incapable to satisfy his own growing doubts. Devout Karin, mother of two and pregnant with another one, is fearful of her husband’s condition and its outcome. In a sense it seems to be the internal drama in mind of Tomas, where Jonas appears to be his disturbed and shock-stricken self, Marta may be his dead wife with whom probably he was distant and cold when she was alive, Karin could be the common parishioners who seek solace from the everyday rituals and prayers which Tomas helps them in. All in all Winter Light works as a spirit of broken link between the man and something imaginary, when the link realizes that there is nothing as trustworthy at the other end as man would like to assume.
As true with any of the Bergman's film there are some scenes with neat cinematography by Sven Nykvist that stays with you. Here what stay are close ups of the two tormented souls, Marta and Jonas. There is an extremely beautiful one-shot monologue by Ingrid Thulin where Marta reads out a letter to Tomas. Ingrid Thulin offers a devastating portrait of a tortured girl, its undoubtedly the best of her performances in any of the Bergman movie I have seen. Gunner Björnstrand carves out a very believable and very human character out of Tomas. Max von Sydow displays a unique charismatic fear in his blank face that is unable to show any emotions and communicate. Gunnel Lindblom is simple as a mother and a caring wife. We cannot believe she is the same actress who played the sensual sister in The Silence, where Thulin plays the isolated intellectual sibling.
There are instances of deadpan black comedy through out the movie. Jonas commits suicide just after counseling from the pastor, the references that Tomas didn't want to be join church, the very reason why Jonas was afraid and the discussion on Christ’s suffering between Sexton and Tomas are the places where you feel what I can call a serious humor.
What make Winter Light one of the greatest films ever is the fact it works on the most human level, of course it almost slaps god for abandoning us all, but it pictures an examination on how badly everybody is looking for someone else to fall on, whether its Marta who wants the Pastor to show some love, or its Jonas who is afraid of massive Chinese attacks and thinks everything is soon coming to an end and there is no solace, no savior to it, or its Sexton who tells pastor about suffering and almost comically argues that he has suffered more than Jesus and beautifully contends that mental suffering hurts more than the physical one. The image of Jonas' God-fearing wife, speechless after hearing Jonas' death, thoroughly devastated is what mirrors Bergman's anguish for God and apprehension for the world.