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Winter Light

Winter Light

By Ben Nicholson • October 13th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Svensk Filmindustri

Original release: February 11th, 1963
Running time: 81 minutes

Country of origin: Sweden
Original language: Swedish with English subtitles

Writer and director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Gunnar Bjönstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow

Winter Light

My introduction to Ingmar Bergman, arguably one of the greatest filmmakers to grace the medium, came at a showing of his weird and wonderful ‘horror’ Hour of the Wolf (1968) at the Barbican Theatre in London. It was however, a double-bill of The Seventh Seal (1957) and Winter Light that really convinced me of his standing in world cinema. Winter Light is the middle chapter of a very loose trilogy, along with Through A Glass Darkly (1961) and The Silence (1963), and is a challenging, beautiful and moving experience – even for someone who does not have beliefs himself.

The plot and setup of this film are extremely simple as there is really very little action to speak of; the ideas and themes that are presented however are a different kettle of fish entirely. The film follows a day in the life of a pastor, Tomas, played wonderfully by Gunnar Björnstrand (one of several Bergman regulars amongst the cast) as he struggles to complete his duty with the silent God that he serves.

Faith and religion are major themes throughout Bergman’s career and the “faith trilogy” is often seen as his attempt to address his own doubts about his faith and his own concerns at God’s silence.

The film opens on the final ten minutes of Tomas’ morning service which may sound laborious but is in fact riveting. We see the mostly empty rural church and all of its inhabitants as Tomas performs; some people cannot muster up the enthusiasm to even hum Winter Lightalong with the hymns, one person sings with great depth and feeling, the man playing the organ yawns and checks his watch and a child dozes on a pew much to the consternation of his mother.

It is very clear as only a handful of the attendees approach the front for communion that Sweden is fast becoming a more secular society and that those people still attending church don’t want to be there but feel obliged. And thus the scene is set for Tomas to have his existential crisis and this is prompted by the visit of Jonas and his wife after the service.

Jonas (played by Max von Sydow) is having a crisis of his own which manifests as a fear of nuclear attack from China due to a radio interview he had heard. This threat of destruction is a cause of constant fear in Jonas and it is when he voices his lack of understanding at why he needs to stay alive that Tomas is truly affected by him. The crisis of faith that Tomas is having is Winter Lightno new thing, he has lost all reverence for a God that would allow his wife to die four years earlier and it is clear that he has been struggling in his role for this period – it is all brought out by Jonas though.

When he is visited by his would-be wife Martha, Tomas behaves cruelly towards her despite her attempts at affection and through this we begin to simultaneously investigate the theme of love and what love is through Tomas’ relationships with Martha and his deceased wife culminating in the brutal scene in the schoolroom.

The performances in this film are fantastic as is usually the case with Bergman’s films; Björnstrand is perfect as the deeply troubled pastor attempting to shepherd his dwindling flock despite his own lack of faith. The scene in the schoolhouse with Martha towards the end is a terrifically cold and callous piece of performance as he lays forth a stream of insults.

He is also equally matched by Ingrid Thulin as Martha who perfectly balances the fussy nature of the character whilst still imbuing her with the deep love that she feels Winter Lightfor Tomas; the scene in which she reads the letter directly to camera is an ingenious device from the director and an unforgettable moment from Thulin.

Although being a chamber-piece and thus largely set in the same place, the film is also beautifully shot by Sven Nykvist, a number of my favourite moments being the opening service (the whole ten minutes), the beautiful shot of Tomas as the light pours in through the window and he wonders “Why hast thou forsaken me?”, the whole scene by the river bank and the shot as Tomas walks into the chapel and stumbles on the step while Martha stands watching by the window.

Despite the somewhat heavy and perhaps unattractive subject matter, this is a very easy film to get into and to love; a masterpiece of a film with great camera work, universal themes and pitch-perfect performances and certainly a great introduction to work of one of cinema’s masters.

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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