• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Friday, May 02, 2008

    Nattvardsgästerna (Winter Light)

    One of Ingmar Bergman's lesser themes was children and family, be it the Jester's family in The Seventh Seal and Dr. Borg's reflections on his childhood in Wild Strawberries (my review though it's currently unavailable) to name but two. So it's somewhat ironic that his films present me with such a dilemma: on the one hand I love so many things about them, but at the same time being an exhausted newish parent means that whenever I watch them it's a very real struggle to stay awake .

    Winter Light is not a Bible film, although two of it's stars later took leading roles in Bible films (Max von Sydow as Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told and Ingrid Thulin as Miriam in Moses the Lawgiver). Yet, in many ways, it's a meditation on Christ's suffering in the short time before his death, and various parts of scripture are quoted throughout, whether as part of liturgy, or just in the ensuing conversation. Its leading man is Tomas Ericsson, the pastor of a small church who wrestles with his doubts about God's perceived silence.

    The film opens towards the end of the Sunday morning service, and proceeds in almost real time throughout the rest of the day. The service itself takes around ten minutes of the comparatively short runtime (75 mins), and quotes words from various parts of scripture - the last supper from the gospels, the priestly blessing from Numbers and so on. There's a deft comic touch to these opening scenes, provided primarily by Olof Thunberg's organist, whilst they simultaneously introduce themes of being distant from God, and going through the motions of religion even though faith has well and truly moved on.
    Following the service two people seek and audience with Ericsson - his sexton, who must wait until later in the day, and Karin Persson, who is seeking to persuade her husband Jonas to open up about his struggles. On the surface, Jonas is primarily troubled by China's march towards the nuclear bomb, but the real issue is that he is deeply disturbed by the apparent absence of God - the very question which oppresses Ericsson so. Ericsson attempts some words of comfort, but ends up blurting out about his own lack of faith. Persson leaves, and, moments later, is discovered to have shot himself in the head.

    Persson's sad demise is surrounded by Ericsson's discussion with Märta Lundberg. The two had been living together following his wife's death, but now their relationship lies in tatters. Lundberg's love for Ericsson remains, albeit in a somewhat distorted fashion, but he has realised that he still loves his wife. Thus Lundberg's failure to match up to her has left him despising her instead. Whilst their discussion appears to clear the air, there seems little hope that their relationship has any kind of future.One of the things I love about Bergman's films is their lighting, and the areas of brightness and shadow that so enliven his compositions. Of course this film's title specifically draws attention to the light. so it's no surprise to find one luscious shot after another. Even if Bergman's images didn't move I could still look at them for hours (provided, of course, that I managed to stay awake). Here the light almost seems to function as an extra character, such as when early on in the film the light through the window suddenly intensifies. There's a clarity about the outdoors in this film which contrasts with the darkness found inside the church. It's not that the great outdoors offers any greater sense of hope - indeed it is outside where Persson takes his own life - but it does seem to provide a sense of clarity which is absent from the murky atmosphere in the church.

    Yet, as the film draws to a close, its only glimmer of hope comes from the possibility that in going through the motions of religious practice we might touch something deeper. When the sexton is finally given the chance to talk to his pastor in the vestry it is simply to offer his reflections on Christ's passion. As a man who has suffered much physical pain he cannot see how that was Jesus's greatest challenge. No, his mental torment as he was betrayed by his friends and faced with God's silence must have been the hardest part. Whilst outside the church is all but empty, the sexton's quiet observation, couched in everyday language rather than Bergman's more typical conversational philosophy, gives Ericsson the motivation to push on through and perform one more act act of worship.

    It's not an easy film, then, nor one that could be said to be in any way uplifting, but at the same time it's clear that Bergman had not yet abandoned all hope, and he at least offers himself the possibility that hauling oneself off the tarmac one more time might bring a brighter, if still difficult, future.



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