“I had a faint hope that it wasn’t all imagination, dreams, lies.”
Tomas the priest in Winter Light
Let’s get spiritual. Or rather, let’s look at a powerful, little film which does so. I know it’s the wrong time of the year to be reviewing a movie with a title like Winter Light, but the Riondel Market [our local rural store] doesn’t often get Ingmar Bergman movies. Carpe filmum, as the Romans might have said. Besides, my alternatives were Kalifomia (mass murderers) and Barfly (flamboyant alcoholics).
Men (and women) of the cloth have, in general, not been treated well by the cinema. Traditionally, the movies have often placed priests and nuns in sensationalized historical or socio-political contexts: witch hunts, exorcisms, ghettoes & barrios, death-row confessions, temptations of the flesh, etc. Movies like On the Waterfront, The Cross & the Switchblade, The Shoes of the Fisherman, The Devils, True Confessions, Black Robe. Most damning and most recent has been the CBC docudrama The Boys of St. Vincent. On the (much) lighter & brighter side, the movies have also given us Norman Rockwellian priests brimming with beneficent, folksy wisdom and Sherlock Holmsian sleuths of the ilk of Edith Partager’s Brother Cadfael, GK Chesterton’s Father Brown, and Umberto Eco’s Brother William.
Only occasionally is the focus of pictures with religious protagonists on the issue of faith itself. Bergman’s Winter Light (1962) is such a film. Before I take a look at it, however, I’d like to mention two other exceptional films which come to mind, both available on video but unfortunately never glimpsed in these parts: Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) and George Shaefer’s In This House of Brede (1975). Ordet is a riveting, unforgettable account of belief and resurrection in a rural village; Brede stars a sublime Diana Rigg as a successful businesswoman who chooses to become a Benedictine nun when her personal universe is shattered by a tragic accident. Keep an eye out for either of these films.
The central character in Winter Light is Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand), a widowed priest in a small Swedish village who feels that God has ceased to speak to him. He stands alone in a silence bleaker than the winter landscape outside his church. Without God’s voice, the statue of the crucifixion above Thomas’ altar becomes nothing more than an absurd, incomprehensible artifact. Overwhelmed as a young priest witnessing the horrors of the Spanish Civil War (“reality turned hideous”), now in the twilight of his life, Thomas wrestles with neither demons nor angels. He no longer believes in them. With the loss of his wife he has lost his last and only shield against his own doubt and self-loathing. She had been the bridge between his crippled faith and an at-least-serviceable façade.
At the point Winter Light opens, the facade is in ruins. The service which opens the film says it all: a near-empty church; an organist who yawns, checks his watch, and moonlights for the Freemasons; a meager collection plate. Visited by a suicidal parishioner, Tomas can do nothing but mumble some lifeless platitudes and lay out an embarrassing (and lethal?) confession of his own failings. Not surprisingly, these particular priestly ministrations don’t help. Instead of offering salvation, Thomas’ soul becomes a black hole which devours the light. Instead of the solicitude of the good shepherd, his is now the cold indifference of the angel of death.
A woman, Märta Lumberg (Ingrid Thulin), an assistant school teacher in the village, offers Thomas her love in the hope of rebuilding new lives for both of them. She’s an unrepentant atheist, prone to sarcasm, but in her passionate, desperate attempts to rekindle Tomas’s humanity she reaches out to the very faith he is denying. She prays because he can’t. She believes in miracles because he won’t. Too bad Tomas is too busy poking around in the ruins, too busy probing the wounds, to accept any kind of salvation. What a sad irony: to lose one’s self is to become extraordinarily selfish. The loss is so great that the victim can’t see beyond it. Tomas’s rejection of Märta is one of the cruelest I have ever heard, a crucifixion in words that might have made even Hamlet blush with shame.
Although we hear the characters in Winter Light speak, there is a great deal of silence in this movie. It’s strange to watch a sound film without a musical soundtrack—only voices and background noises. With these silences, and Sven Nykvist’s uncompromising black & white cinematography, Bergman accomplishes two things: he helps us feel the main character’s desperate hollowness of soul, and he reminds us of how artificial a medium cinema is. We tend to forget that film deconstructs reality, then rebuilds it from scratch through the eyes of directors, cinematographers, and film editors. Time and space are totally plastic, as mobile as the camera and its lenses, as malleable as the film stock itself. In Winter Light, images fade in and out over one another, close-ups become massive and sculptural, the camera pans across scenes like the dispassionate eye of God. You watch a Bergman film the way you might watch a master storyteller as you sit around a campfire at night. The teller is as fascinating as the tale.
The protagonist of Winter Light can’t handle the spirit-proof wall he’s built around his soul. He wants God Himself to tell him that everything’s OK. He wants burning bushes and fiery fingers writing The Answer in stone on the church walls. Denying the healing power of love, all Tomas gets is winter light. Not even ghosts to haunt the silence.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“I think I have made just one picture that I really like, and that is Winter Light…Everything is exactly as I wanted to have it, in every second of this picture.” – Ingmar Bergman
I’ve had an interesting relationship with Winter Light. On first viewing, it affected me strongly enough to merit a review. Thirty years later, when I saw the film for the second time, and having completely forgotten that I’d once reviewed it, I was so disgusted by Pastor Tomas Ericsson’s fecklessness that I wrote it off completely. Now, going back to Winter Light for the third time, I’m a fan again. The shortest feature film Ingmar Bergman ever made, I would argue it’s one of his best.
Why the change of heart? First of all, Bergman makes absolutely stunning use of close-ups in the film; they have the massive dignity of those stone heads on Easter Island. Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is the only other work I can think of that uses close-ups so powerfully. Bergman also chose to frequently shoot his characters from low and high angles, even further doubling down on psychological effect. The settings also contribute to the sense of a stone-cold world, stripped bare and suffocating. The two churches featured are Spartan in their decoration, with white walls bathed in cold November light. The congregation has virtually abandoned both churches, and the word of God rings hollowly against empty pews. The medieval-looking altarpieces, with their medieval-style carvings & tormented Christ figure, perfectly mirror the harrowed wasteland of Tomas’s soul. And when the camera moves outdoors, it’s all gray skies and clinging wet snow. There’s no comfort here.
This time around, instead of being annoyed by Tomas’s anomie, I appreciated the brutal honesty of Bergman’s portrait of lost faith. Tomas is a spiritual black hole. The traditional picture of the wayward priest has been as a seducer, a manipulator, an inquisitor, or an innocent succumbing to worldly temptation. In Winter Light, we have an almost literal anti-Christ: a spiritual leader whose essence turns any kind of Christian virtue to ashes and dust. This pastor has driven away the faithful from his churches, verbally flays the one person who loves him (in one of cinema’s cruelest scenes), and gives a spiritual cyanide pill of his own bitter doubts to those who come to him for hope or affirmation. This is the man who says of the lowest point in his pastoral life, “Now I’m free.” It wouldn’t take much to twist this screenplay into the blackest of black comedies. It’s not hard to imagine Tomas’s sexton, Frövik, as an inverted Mephistopheles—taunting his hollowed-out superior with his own genuine faith.
One disturbing thought: Is Tomas’s professed love & idealization of his dead wife a cinematic mcguffin? Are we to believe him? Has his faith and his capacity to love shriveled and died because he lost the woman he loved, or has he always been as empty as we see him now? is there a chance he actually treated his wife little better than he treats Märta? We never learn how his wife died, and there are no children. Is he different from the sanctimonious hypocrites who thunder against immorality while secretly indulging in behaviors that would make Keith Richards blush? I’d wager that when Tomas tells Märta, “I have to escape this junkyard of idiotic trivialities,” he’s talking about his whole life—wife, church, and parishioners included. He may be as much of a “spider-Priest” as his indifferent God is a “spider-God.”
Ingrid Thulin is superb as the schoolteacher who’s chosen the wrong man on whom to lavish her affections. It’s a textbook case of lethal co-dependency, a couple of decades before that term came into widespread use. Their relationship is utterly toxic, reminiscent of that infamous torture scenario where a cage containing a starving rat is strapped to a victim’s belly. Death, whether physical or spiritual, is inevitable. I admire Bergman’s courage in breaking his own cinematic spell by having Thulin address her one long monologue directly to the camera and the audience. The effect is jarring, as if one of the carvings on the altarpiece suddenly turned and spoke to us, but I think Bergman was motivated by his absolute confidence that his lead actress was brilliant enough to let him get away with thumbing his nose at the so-called fourth wall. See, he’s saying, I can make you believe in my magic even while I’m showing you how the trick is done.
Near the end of the film, the organist tells Märta, “Get out while you can.” Good advice. Not going to happen.