“…what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art”. – Vladimir Nabokov, 1964
Many viewers agree that Ingmar Bergman’s movies reveal the human soul. To Bergman, the human face is the most interesting subject of study in cinema, and he achieves brilliant effects with it. He’s famous for his facial closeups, where he fills the frame with one or two juxtaposing faces. In addition, Bergman’s longtime cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, would work his magic with light and shadow. The camera then holds, unblinking, staring into the actors’ souls as they convey impossibly real and raw emotions. Some people only see them as pictures of people looking depressed. Well, perhaps Bergman’s films are an acquired taste, like coffee or poetry.
The Silence of God Trilogy refers to three Bergman films that deal with religion and the silence of God. They are completely unrelated in plot but share a common theme, and are therefore grouped together in retrospect.
Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
The film starts by introducing the cast of four people vacationing on a remote island: Karin, her husband, father and brother. Karin is a young woman suffering from schizophrenia. She sees visions and hears voices of a god who’s waiting to reveal himself behind a wall in an abandoned room. Throughout the film, Karin drifts between two realities: her physical life and the world of the god that she imagines and submits to. She grows helplessly distant from her family members, who try to emotionally support each other as well.
In the climactic scene of her religious hysteria, Karin, staring transfixed at the wallpaper, anticipates the manifestation of her god. A spider crawls onto the wall. She screams and breaks down. She tells her family that she had looked into the eyes of God, and that he is a spider.
Bergman’s religious philosophy can be hard for people to wrap their minds around, but the emotions are perfectly conveyed through the meticulously composed and lit shots. As Roger Ebert puts it: “You can freeze almost any frame of this film and be looking at a striking still photograph.”
Winter Light (1963)
The pastor of a cold, wintry town is caught in an existential crisis: it seems to him that God has deserted him in the midst of turmoil and a seemingly meaningless life. He at last rejects his faith and frees himself. But something else becomes apparent: he has no capacity for love and remains cruel and unsympathetic. In the final scene, the pastor starts a sermon with one attendee. One is left to wonder whether God has spoken at last or if he’s merely keeping up the religious pretense.
Bergman and his cinematographer sat for hours in an abandoned church to observe the winter sunlight throughout the day, so they’re able to capture the cold, bleak light so perfectly. It reflects the equally emotions that are so pervasive throughout the film.
The Silence (1963)
Two sisters and one of their small sons are vacationing in an unnamed foreign country. When the older sister is overcome with illness, the three stay in a vast hotel. The sisters have old grudges that are never made clear to the audience. Soon, the hotel room becomes a spiteful battleground for the sisters. The innocent boy, meanwhile, remains untainted by the adults’ hatred. He curiously explores the long, winding halls of the hotel, oblivious to mature emotions.
True to its title, The Silence uses little dialogue. The backstory is never fully revealed and viewers are left to read between the lines. The camera tracks down the empty hotel corridors in unsettling silence. The emotions live on the faces; the lighting gives them incredible depth. God is never mentioned in this film; he is absent from the world.