A dark vein of sorrow flows through many films by Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman. With his constant obsession with death, whether it be in the physical sense of the metaphorical death of emotion or belief, his films often pack a punch way ahead of their times. In his so-called “Faith trilogy”, Bergman assesses the death of things dearest to the human psyche such as religion, love and the doubt that sows the seeds of this passing. These are mixed well in both The Silence and Through a Glass Darkly but it is his 1963 film Winter Light that this subject is addressed most honestly and brutally.
Set in a winter abyss of a village church, Bergman is determined to dissect the characters relationship with God and the crumbling nature of it when presented with societies follies. Pastor Tomas is the man whose faith is shattered. The film opens with a full service given by him that drags endlessly and is empty of all hope and philosophy. His clear lack of empathy with his apparent flock is what is killing his faith. Played brilliantly by Gunnar Björnstrand, his character is a cold husk that has been weathered by the sands of society and left hollow.
A fisherman comes to him for solitude having felt worry and severe panic over the potential for nuclear war. The pastor’s loss of faith results in the fisherman’s untimely suicide adding further to his religious decay. Perhaps Bergman wanted to show the increasing loss of religion through a microcosm of characters yet the film seems deeper than that simple discourse. The pastor may have lost his belief but he constantly struggling to regain it as if life itself is merely a diversion that has been distracting him for too long. This leads him to lash out at a friendly and loving schoolmistress who is madly in love with him.
Played by Ingrid Thulin her character is utterly heartbreaking to watch as she delivers a powerful monologue reading letters sent to the Pastor. With the stress of the fisherman’s suicide hanging heavy and resentful at his constant cold, which is seen as yet another act of a non-existent God, he callously reveals his absence of feeling to her in a devastating scene of drama.
Having such a small cast and setting, the film seems claustrophobic, as if inviting us to become stuck in this cold, snowy world of death without hope. It has the feel of a stage play with the fourth wall is broken numerous times further trapping the viewer. This is a film of cold and clinical examination of the hopeless and the people who are crushed by the world and its ways. The eventual breakdown of the Pastor though shows there can perhaps be some hope for the new Nietzschean God-less society with the light shining through the window of the empty church as the Pastor breaks down.
The Tartan release is one of the many brilliant editions to their Bergman collection. The extras are manual notes and extracts from books but this will appeal to the more academic of viewers. The transfer is wondrous and the snow gleams while the church shivers in its icy cold restoration.
Winter Light isn’t a film of action. It’s a wordy, philosophical drama on a subject extremely affecting and heavy. Though it may not be the first choice on the list of films to watch in the summer or even in the back catalogue of Ingmar Bergman, it’s an emotional tour de force of theological dissection and an underrated gem.