cries and whispers wasn't the first ingmar bergman film I saw - like most aspiring film students, that honor belongs to his seminal the seventh seal. but cries and whispers distills everything great about bergman's body of work into one perfect film - philosophical questions of identity, the desire for redemption, and stunningly beautiful camera work and set design all combine to make a film that's as visually beautiful as it is thematically interesting. and it was released to critical acclaim - despite financiers' worries that it wouldn't perform well in america, critics loved the film and it won the academy awards for best cinematography and best foreign film in 1974, while also being nominated for several others.
the first thing that anyone will notice about this film is the color palette - specifically, red, white, and black. bergman's use of these colors is so layered and imbued with meaning that I could write an entire paper on it. and I did do just that, in a scandinavian cinema class I took at tisch, so I won't expound on it here. and since I don't have a copy of it anymore, I won't be able to post excerpt, for which I'm sure you're all very disappointed.
instead, let's focus on the new depths to which bergman ventures into his traditional theme of familial responsibility. throughout his work, family has always played a crucial role - just look at scenes from a marriage, fanny and alexander, or the virgin spring. family can unite and destroy, family can be a refuge from the outside world, or something we run from and try to leave behind. here, however, bergman takes a different road, and it's one to which almost all of my own work relates - the divergent roads that family members can take, leading them from a common beginning to vastly different ends.
throughout the film, bergman incorporates flashbacks depicting the three sisters - agnes, karin, and maria - growing up with their distant mother. in the present timeline, the sisters are all surrounded by memories of childhood - dolls, photographs, mementos of their mother - and these often leads the viewer into and out of the flashbacks.
but as the film progresses, so do the flashbacks, eventually leading us to other formative moments along the sisters' lives - arguments with husbands and affairs with lovers, for example - that begin to illuminate the various points of divergence throughout their lives. and when they are forced back to their childhood home to care for their ailing sister who never suffered the same tribulations, everything starts to come out.
and they don't like what they see.
maria and karin regard agnes with nothing but contempt, finally having been confronted with the disparity between what they'd hoped for themselves versus what their lives have truly become. in one early seen, karin looks over a dollhouse she had as child, filled with a happy family of dolls that have everything they could ever want. soon after this scene, and agnes takes a turn for the worse, we get a flashback detailing maria's own home life as an adult, and it's a far cry from any child would ever envision as a "happily ever after."
this desire to trace characters from a common starting point all the way to what will always be very divergent endpoints has always fascinated me. at it's most base, it one of the reasons I love to re-watch films - to see that character's transformation through the narrative arcs. but I love it even more when that's the whole point (or at least one point) of a film - how a character moves from innocence to awareness - and it's precisely that journey that's so important.
when an artists opts to juxtapose a character before his journey with that same character after the journey and we see drastic physical and emotional differences, that's opens up a whole world of story possibility for the gap between the two.
the challenge for the artists, the writer, the filmmaker, then, is to play with that traditional hero's journey and make it into something new, something unique. bergman's work was primarily internal - his characters battled their own internal forces instead of the more traditional external forces from which hollywood refuses to deviate.
young writers today are taught to focus on those externalized conflicts - after all, it's exceedingly difficult to visualize an internal conflict - but that reliance on creating more traditional, and, I must say, easy, conflicts contributes to the dearth of quality material that's able to reach and find a large audience. as hollywood has become reliant on traditional narrative arcs, so have audiences, and anything that deviates from this path is met with distain or, even worse, indifference.
and isn't that, ultimately, indicative of the era in which we're living? everyone wants a quick fix, something that makes them feel good, something that reassures them. and that's exactly the problem - if we all took a cold, hard look at ourselves, we wouldn't like what we'd see. but maybe we'd force ourselves to mount up the courage to change, instead of falling back into what makes us feel good, what helps us forget our problems.
forcing the cycle to continue.
(buy a copy of the criterion dvd from amazon.)