19 June 2006


The Silence (Tystnaden) - dir. Ingmar Bergman - 1963 - Sweden

While probably best known as the conclusion of his nameless trilogy that began with Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light (and, due to its sexual content, "the largest unwanted audience for a Bergman film" as he put it), The Silence marked some sort of turning point in Bergman's career, perhaps one of the more frightening. His trilogy was a collection of chamber dramas, with limited characters in even more limited space. Through a Glass Darkly found four characters (a father, daughter, son, and husband of the daughter) on a secluded island; Winter Light took place mostly in church vestibules. The Silence has, essentially, three characters, stuck in a nameless foreign country, torn apart by war, and the majority of the "action" takes place in a nearly empty hotel and train. Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) is traveling with her ailing sister Ester (Ingrid Thulin) and curious son (Jörgen Lindström). They are forced to stop their journey in this unknown country to allow for Ester to rest before reembarking on their trip.

Anna and Ester stand polar to one another. Anna is sensual; Ester is intellectual. Anna doesn't automatically recognize Bach on the radio; Ester masturbates out of crude boredom. While it's mentioned that a pre-existing jealousy and fear had taken over Anna in relation to her sister, we are beyond this point at the beginning of the film. Ester's health is failing fast, and it is her that has adopted this longing and jealousy. Anna has grown tired of her sister, and in her first interaction with someone outside of the family, she expresses, "I wish Ester would die." By now, we're familiar with the piercing dialogue between Bergman characters. They express deep-rooted guilt and despair to one another, saying things we only wish we were in-tune or clever enough to express to the closest ones in our life (or, maybe not). Hatred is amplified to the point of emotional violence and rape, and, as the final installment of the trilogy, we know this all-to-well. This knowledge would make us reluctant to buy into Bergman a third time around if The Silence weren't a different creature altogether. In a method that would be used to its fullest in his later Persona, we realize that Anna and Ester are opposing sides of one person, at tremdenous odds with one another. The framing of the women (as seen in the first still of this post) has become a signature of his, best used in both Persona and Cries and Whispers. The warring between the women becomes especially vivid and pressing when we realize that this is not simply another pairing of despair between Bergman characters.

With this pairing, The Silence becomes easily the most challenging of the three. With Persona's reflexive style, we can easily decipher what's going on between Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann. Here, it's still a chamber drama in the style of the previous two. Both Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light seem comparatively easy to swallow in their quests to thrive under a silent (or noexistentnt) God. In The Silence, God isn't present. If you want to be optimisticic, you can see the title as God's own silence (the original title was apparently The Silence of God), but if you don't, God's silence could be deduced as his own noexistencece. In a Bergman world, this is mighty scary, far more frightening than Hariett Andersson seeing his face in Through a Glass Darkly. When his characters don't even have thopportunityty to blame, scold, and anguish over an unpresent God, they must exist without one. And without one, the stakes are higher, and the pain terminally fatal.

1 comment:

Ed Howard said...

Oftentimes, when I start watching a lot of films by a director, I'll have an early favorite that's later replaced as I see more of the director's films. This is not the case with Bergman -- The Silence was one of the first few films I saw by him, I was bowled over by it, and it remains among my top few favorites by him, only possibly exceeded by Fanny & Alexander. In addition to the fertile sexual, spiritual, and identity issues that you pick up on, the film is a searing political allegory on the failure to communicate and its translation into violence -- Bergman mirrors the lack of interpersonal communication with a similar absence between societies (the incomprehensible language of the unidentified country the sisters wind up in). It's a terrifying vision of humanity's total failure to connect -- with loved ones, with God, with the ever-present "Other." Only the boy in the film is able to get past the language barrier and engage with everyone he encounters in some way, providing some measure of hope to the film's vision, though it's by no means clear that this openness to others will be enduring, or merely a product of youth.