Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Twenty-Eight

70s cries

#28 — Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1972)
As always, I come to Ingmar Bergman as a wary traveler, an interloper into a cinematic world of abstract artistry that I’m not quite confident I’ll ever fully grasp. The legendary Swedish director, as much as anyone who ever stood on a movie set and told the cameraman where to point his machinery, comes at his films with a devotion to mood, deeply developed emotional truth and finding the profundity in that which is withheld. There are mysteries between the lines of his visual poetry and that is where the meaning lies. As one of his works unfolds, even if it’s finally too distant for me to fully appreciate, I can feel all the things he knows about film that I will never grasp descend on me like a weighted lead apron laid upon my chest. Of course, there are things I hold in my head, even about film, that he never knew, although mine may be comparatively trivial held up against his knowledge which translated into making shadows on the screen into art. That may seem presumptuous on my part, comparing myself in any way to an acknowledged master, but it also strikes me as a fittingly Bergmanesque way of looking at things.

Cries and Whispers is a period piece, taking place in the eighteen-hundreds as a wealthy woman is slowly dying in the plush red environs of a large mansion, her two sisters and longtime housekeeper by her side, trying their best to help her through the agonizing final days of her ailment. It is about mortality, but it is also about history, as the film turns to the pasts of the three woman watching life slip away, engaging the viewer in grim, disturbing flashbacks from key moments in their lives. There are gruesome relationship failures and love sheared clean away like chunks of bark from a dying tree, all of it presented with the sort of lightly ravaged solemnity that is the clearest realization of Bergman’s voice. No episode particularly takes primacy over another. They’re equal expressions of the tragicomic passage of human existence.

Part of the embedded irony of the film is that the futility of this resigned progress from birth to death is nested in great, sumptuous beauty. Just as the comforts of a large country estate can’t forestall the moment when the last breath must be expelled, the film’s picturesque qualities–largely thanks to the brilliant, Oscar-winning cinematography of Bergman’s regular collaborator Sven Nykvist–don’t actually disguise the sadness at its heart, where one glancing moment of unlikely, tenuous togetherness is the best hope a person can get in the eternal quest to extract grace and meaning from a life. Bergman typically shot in black and white before this, and the venture into color is striking, particular the use of a deep, almost overpowering red, which the filmmaker once noted was his depiction of the hue of the human soul. Even without that knowledge, it’s clear that Bergman is communicating something specific with all this smothering crimson, that it is some elusive expression of himself.

Within that inner feeling–that certainty that there’s something, perhaps unidentifiable, that was placed with care by the director–is the nugget of why I think I respond to Cries and Whispers even if I don’t necessarily feel fully equipped to engage in pontification and discourse on its merits. As cerebral as Bergman can be, there’s also a staggering amount of emotion in his best films, and that penetrates the mind and heart without any translation through explication. It’s a quality that I’ve found time and again when I approach his work. It’s waiting there, ever so patiently. I only need to meet it with the requisite intellectual and spiritual openness.

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