Continuing my trend of theme-based Wednesdays, today I’m starting Bergman 101, a look at the films of acclaimed auteur Ingmar Bergman. Over the next three Wednesdays I’ll be examining his Trilogy of Faith.
When Ingmar Bergman set out to make “Through a Glass Darkly” he had no intentions of creating a trilogy of films. But the thematic through-line linking it and the two movies that followed prompted many critics to recognize them as the Trilogy of Faith. Bergman eventually acknowledged the idea, then dismissed it, then semi-adopted it and so on.
The themes found in so many of Bergman’s movies are rooted in the filmmaker’s experiences growing up in a devoutly religious home. His father was a Lutheran minister whose harsh disciplinarian approach to parenting often clashed with the faith he espoused. As a result Ingmar wrestled with faith and many of his movies were expressions of that. And while these three films are recognized as his Trilogy of Faith, they could more specifically be considered treatments on the Silence of God.
“Through a Glass Darkly” (a title taken from 1 Corinthians 13:12) is essentially a Swedish chamber drama. It is set within the bounds of a remote island retreat where four family members are vacationing together. You have the patriarch David (Gunnar Björnstrand), his daughter Karin (Harriet Andersson), her husband Martin (Max von Sydow), and David’s seventeen-year-old son Minus (Lars Passgård).
Bergman opens the film with the four coming out of the Baltic Sea after a swim. Their laughter and playful jesting insinuates happiness and joy. But it’s all a mask covering up many of the themes Bergman will explore throughout his film. It uncoils in a methodically written and shrewdly acted dinner scene. In it several key bits of information are shared and tensions are subtly illuminated. These tensions are between each person at the table and unfold through scene after scene of emotional interaction and personal revelation.
During our time with this family we learn of Karin’s seemingly incurable mental disease which becomes the catalyst for much of the narrative’s maneuvering. We see Martin, a truly loving husband but who is quietly frustrated at his wife’s lack of affection. We discover David is a struggling writer who far too often has prioritized his career over his family. And Minus, bitter about his father’s disinterest and desperate for some form of connection.
Throughout the entirety of his tightly framed story you see Bergman expressing himself in a variety of ways. Take the three men and their uniquely personal reactions to Karin’s illness. David is riddled with guilt yet so perversely callous due to his allegiance to his art. Martin submissively cares for his wife but feels utterly powerless to help or comfort her. Minus seems confused about his sister’s illness and for a time oblivious to its severity. You can’t help but wonder if Bergman sees pieces of himself in each of these individuals.
Yet part of the film’s genius is in the many ways you could interpret it. Are these men actually reinforcing the meaning of the movie’s title? In the biblical text “glass” is better translated as “mirror“. “Darkly” refers to how unclear we see things. The passage speaks to a reflection that is blurred and indistinct. It lacks clarity and definition. Bergman could be showing us three men who see themselves as truly loving Karin when in reality they do so on their own selfishness terms.
As the men wrestle with their own insecurities, the film’s true centerpiece Karin slowly unravels. She begins to hear voices in a vacant upstairs room declaring that God will arrive soon. Are the voices holy or are they something sinister? Are they simply figments of Karin’s frail mental state? Harriet Andersson is terrific navigating this dense emotional minefield and there is a subtle haunting agony underneath her every gaze and expression.
Technically, everything Bergman does is part of the film’s unique storytelling language. Acclaimed cinematographer Sven Nykvist proves to be a key component to the movie’s effectiveness. Whether he’s bathing his images in brilliant natural light or shooting intense closeups that look beyond the eyes and into his subject’s soul, Nykvist compliments Bergman’s cold, austere perspective. And he makes even the cleanest, simplest composition worthy of our inspection.
“Through a Glass Darkly” would take home the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Bergman’s second win in as many years. But for Bergman, his thematic look at family reconciliation, the search for God, and the self-absorbed drive of the artist was about more than awards. For him it was a metaphysical exploration, a deep introspection, and a much-needed catharsis. The results are dark, muddy, and complex. Even the film’s seemingly positive final rumination (which Bergman himself later disparaged) may be far more cynical than it sounds.
But that’s another part of what makes this such a great film. You almost immediately sense it’s coming from a deeply personal place. It’s something seen in so many of Bergman’s movies, and something certainly recognized throughout the rest of this either intentional or unintentional trilogy.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS