It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a Bergman film. Went through a stage a year or more ago that included The Seventh Seal, The Silence, Wild Strawberries, Fanny & Alexander, and Cries & Whispers. Winter Light was supposedly Bergman’s favorite of all of his films. It’s dense, direct, and brief. But any longer and it would be too long.
The setting is a pastor, Tomas Ericsson, in a small town in very wintry Sweden. The pastor’s glory days in his parish have passed, due to his wife’s death chiefly. Since then the numbers in his church have diminished, and rumors have swirled about his relationship with a woman, Märta. The cold, icy setting of the film effectively reflects the mood of most of the characters, especially Tomas. The shots following the credits, accompanying Tomas’ recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, are a montage of the snowy outdoors, with dead or dormant trees and the absence of life. About eight people comprise the congregation. Two of them, a married couple, come to speak with Tomas following the service. The woman tells the pastor that her husband, who is unwilling to speak, is fearful of the news that China is experimenting with nuclear weapons. It soon is apparent that his fear is less of China and more of death in general. It seems more than coincidental that the woman is played by the protagonist of Bergman’s following film, The Silence, in a role that in many ways is the continuation of this character. Also, the husband is played by the knight who plays chess with Death in The Seventh Seal, already identifying him with that grave subject matter. The pastor’s attempt to help the man turns into a reverse-confessional booth, with Tomas coming clean that he, too, has no hope and cannot believe in God. Shortly thereafter, the husband kills himself. The rest of the film has Tomas wrestling with the thought that sent his parishioner to suicide.
Bergman, quite the agnostic believer (or believing agnostic), never seemed to tell anyone to believe or not to believe. Films such as this have him wrestling with the idea of God and the seeming incompatibility of existence with God. But Bergman no more lands on one side or the other than does Tomas. One scholar has interpreted the film’s end as Bergman’s hope that as long as there is still one person to minister to, there is hope. That seems quite wrongheaded. Granted, the last person is Märta, who for the first time begins to move beyond mere hostility toward belief in God and longs for some kind of truth. However, the crux of the story and the theme is Tomas. The hunchback sexton is the only character who has true faith. He not only attends services, comes early, and lights the candles, but he concerns himself with the most core matter of what faith entails. Whereas the church is covered in bloody crucifixes, obsessed with the physical pain of Jesus, the sexton points out that Jesus’ physical pain was intense, but very brief. The sexton, in his life, has likely experienced more pain than Christ did. The sexton states this matter-of-factly, with no sacrilege intended. As the sexton listed all that Christ endured, I waited, wondering if he would ever get the the real heart of the matter: Christ’s final doubt on the cross, His feeling that God, his Father, abandoned him. The sexton saved it for last because it is by far the most important fact of Christ’s suffering. This humble fool is likely what gives Tomas the push to go forward with the service, despite his strong doubts. Still, that Bergman gave the film’s last word to the sexton could lead one to hasty, simplistic conclusions. Bergman isn’t endorsing faith anymore than he is endorsing suicide. He seems rather to be illustrating the difficulty, the conflict in a person who realizes the ramifications of belief/unbelief in God. Early in the film, Tomas says that he is free (from belief), but as the film continues it is clear that suspending or rejecting belief in God is not always as freeing as one hopes it will be. He longs for a kind of freedom that seems not to exist. The sexton believes in God, thereby enslaving himself to that belief. Jonas rejected God and killed himself. The only character who does not actually seek freedom is the sexton. Interestingly, all he seeks is sleep. He reads the Bible to cure his insomnia.
Notes: All shots during services completely symmetrical – order, perfection. Very severe. When girl winces at wine, pastor furrows brow. Pastor talks about bliss, peace, and blessing, but appears utterly stoic. Montage of ritualistic, inanimate church imagery; shows monotony, emptiness of rituals. Tomas tells sexton same hymns for next time. Husband’s name is “Jonas Persson” – sort of a John Doe, everyman. Like Tomas, Jonas faces toward window and away from other people. Tomas says, “We must trust God,” but he appears troubled. Huge emaciated Jesus hanging on cross behind pastor in office. “What a ridiculous image” – pastor on crucifix. “God’s silence” is bothering him.Märta says, “God has never spoken because God doesn’t exist.” Skull & crossbones on wall of church. Märta “reads” letter staring straight at camera – no escape. She says Tomas was unable to pray for her. “I never believed in your faith…God & Jesus were always just vague notions.” Conscience/guilt has her looking at him. “If there is no God, would it really make any difference?” Life might make more sense, he thinks. Camera closes in on Tomas’ face, then, “God, why have you forsaken me?” as camera pulls back. As body is loaded into van, high, long shots – contrast with camera in rest of film – close-ups. Tomas rejects Märta’s love. Loved his wife – “When she died, I died.” Calls Märta an “ugly parody” of her. Still asks her to accompany him to Mrs. Persson’s. As they approach train crossing, Tomas: “It was my parents’ dream that I become a clergyman.” Sexton says maybe Christ’s pain wasn’t mainly physical – Gethsemane, Peter’s denial, lack of disciples’ understanding & obedience, Christ’s loneliness. Then, above all, God’s forsake. “In the moments before He died, Christ was seized by doubt…God’s silence.” Märta: “If only we had some truth to believe in. If only we could believe.” Camera cuts to Tomas, head in hands; decides to go through with service. Märta only one in attendance besides sexton, the hunchback of faith. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory.” End.