The second film in Ingmar Bergman’s inadvertent Trilogy of Faith is “Winter Light” and it is easily the most pointedly spiritual of the three movies. The film centers on a tortured pastor in the midst of an existential crisis. And if you thought “Through a Glass Darkly” had a tight focus, “Winter Light” narrows its scope even further. Here the story revolves around one man and his struggle to find meaning in his life.
Bergman made nineteen movies with Gunnar Björnstrand and here the Stockholm born actor plays Tomas Ericsson, the pastor of a small rural church. The film begins with Tomas leading his minuscule flock in their Sunday morning church service. Only a handful of parishioners are present including a fisherman named Jonas (Max von Sydow) and his pregnant wife Karin (Gunnel Lindblom). Also there is Märta (Ingrid Thulin), a local schoolteacher and former love interest of Tomas who has essentially become a thorn in his side.
Throughout this thirteen-minute opening we watch as the parishioners sing hymns and take communion. Bergman and his long-time cinematographer Sven Nykvist deftly use their camera to not only capture the solemnity of the service but also to reveal the burdened souls of the people. This is conveyed mostly through a series of intense close-ups which Bergman so often employed in his films. Frequent cuts move us from one somber face to another, only occasionally interrupted by shots of Tomas carrying out his ecclesiastical duties.
Just like “Through a Glass Darkly” this story unfolds within a 24-hour window. The opening church service scene sets things in motion and does more than just convey the troubled state of the congregation. It also serves as an introduction to the people Tomas will encounter on more personal levels throughout the film. Bergman uses those interactions to dig deeper into Tomas’ psyche which is in many ways a mirror of his own. Bergman is essentially wrestling with the very same questions, uncertainties, and isolation.
Tomas is in a miserable state. He is physically ill (it’s said Björnstrand actually had the flu during filming). He is emotionally detached. And he is as spiritually cold as the snowy Scandinavian winter. But Tomas isn’t necessarily a sympathetic figure. At one point he is asked what’s troubling him. His two-word response, “God’s silence.” Yet he too is silent when it comes to speaking grace and guidance to those who seek it. Instead he greets all with an icy indifference.
Take Jonas, deeply distressed over specific world events, who comes to the pastor seeking counsel. Yet all Tomas does is speak of his own misery and inner-tumult. Could it be that he too is crying out for help? Perhaps. But that doesn’t change the fact that Jonas is left a victim of Tomas’ self-absorption. And his treatment of Marta reveals even more about him. Despite her annoyances, Marta truly loves Tomas and shows genuine concern. But his bitter, spiteful responses to her shows an antipathy completely at odds with the compassion of his calling.
It would be tempting to look at “Winter Light” through a broad lens – as simply a movie about a pastor who has lost his way. But anyone familiar with Bergman’s catalog knows he doesn’t work strictly on a surface level. That’s why this is such a fascinating film and one of my favorite Bergman pictures. There are innumerable ways you could interpret this film and its characters. Is it a movie about a wayward soul suffocating under the weight of depression? Is the film challenging what it sees as strict tenets of the Christian faith? Is it Bergman’s portrait of his father, a Lutheran minister to the masses but harsh disciplinarian at home?
With “Winter Light” Bergman has made something that has all the exterior markings of a slow, uneventful drama. But underneath its austere finish is a provocative think piece; a movie with the sheer depth of meaning to challenge any thoughtful viewer. It’s bleak and dour perspective won’t be for everyone. Nor will its ruminative pacing. But it’s far from aimless and what you get out of it will largely depend on what you bring to it.
VERDICT – 5 STARS