Friday, January 15, 2010

Words in a foreign language

So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.
-G.K. Chesterton

I'm deliberately starting these Bergman posts with Chesterton quotes; specifically because I just finished reading Orthodoxy; generally because Chesterton's cosmic levity is precisely the antidote to the gravity of Bergman's terrestrial deafness.

Outside of The Seventh Seal, Winter Light is the most explicitly religious of any Bergman film I've seen, centering as it does on a pastor's crisis of faith.  There is a key moment when the pastor confesses that when his thoughts about god were stripped bare, he understood that his god was a comforting fatherly version of himself.  Confronted by his own spiritual nakedness, the pastor comes to the realization that God is a monster.  This is an important realization, understanding, as Lewis put it for children, that Aslan is not a tame lion.

It is obvious, but nonetheless extremely important that the pastor spends much of the film physically located in the shadow of Jesus.

Winter Light is as much about love and communication as Through a Glass Darkly.  How do we live with compassion in a junkyard of idiotic trivialities?  

The unbearable "Silence of God" is the heart of the matter and Winter Light is the heart of Bergman's trilogy.  There is one scene that is more important than all others.  A deacon or church caretaker of sorts (most definitely a sincere believer) speaks with the pastor about the Gospel Passion narratives.  Through this dialogue, it becomes clear that Bergman is aware that God Himself hanging on a cross experienced the Silence of God, suffering with humanity in all things, including Bergman's very specific affliction.
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts.  The whole earth is full of His glory.

The Silence is the most complex film of the Trilogy.  Stripped of all faith, Bergman shows us Hell.  

Here, Bergman's exploration of the curse of Babel is complete, to the point at which one character seeks solace in the fact that the stranger she has just had sex with cannot understand a word she says.  Communication has broken down to the extent that the impossibility of communication is a relief when faced with the alternative of actually coming to terms with the Otherness of one another.

The flip side of that is that the most beautiful moment in the film is when two characters who speak different languages do bridge the gap through a shared awareness of the heavenly music of Bach.  Even the two fighting sisters make peace for the time that Bach is on the radio.

There's so much more that deserves to be written about.  The train, the dwarves, carnality and arid intellectualism, Johan and the hotel waiter, the tanks...

I'm feeling too lazy to do any of it justice.  

I will briefly mention that the sound design is excellent.  The Silence is anything but silent.  Ticks and drones, radio and talk, all serve to drown out that thunderous silence.

"These three films deal with reduction.  Through a Glass Darkly--conquered certainty.  Winter Light--penetrated certainty.  The Silence--God's silence--the negative imprint.  Therefore, they constitute a trilogy." -Ingmar Bergman

I do think that it's a shame that many think that Bergman successfully shed his religious "baggage" with The Silence so that he could move forward in his examination of human psychology without God.  Bergman does go on to explore human pyschology without God.  He never does shed his baggage.    

Bergman may have abandoned the Faith completely (though I don't think so; like the pastor he cannot escape the shadow of Jesus), but The Silence screams its "negative imprint."  Paradoxically, through the absence of God in this film and all that that entails, we're made all the more aware of our need for Pentecost's reversal of Babel and the reconciliation of all things in the work of Jesus.  We may not be able to believe this or live like this, but the need is clear.  

Maybe I'm misinterpreting all three films.  I'm pretty sure that Bergman was never really clear about his own motivations and what was in his heart.  I'd like to read his autobiography eventually.  Regardless, I know that I don't know.  My own heart is veiled and my vision is cloudy.  Forgive me for being bold in declaring anything about Bergman when I fail to understand anything about myself.  Like Bergman, I have to at least attempt to communicate something, even if all I'm communicating is how difficult communication can be.


82jp said...

One thing I appreciate about Bergman's work is that it is very individualized. He's not making any sweeping generalizations. His characters on each on their own journey. The good thing about this is that it makes it very easy for us viewers to project our own ideas onto his work. I personally don't think Winter Light (or The Silence) were hopeful movies at all, yet in the case of winter light (which I watched with Amy), we were able to find hope in the film because of our own faith. I don't think everyone who watches it would come to the same conclusion, however.
I also appreciate that even in The Silence, Bergman is still searching- I don't believe, again, that he's trying to present any universal truths to his audience- but I find it sad that he is no longer able to connect with the faith that he could at least still wrestle with in Seventh Seal. Like the child wandering down empty halls, Bergman's search for meaning leads him only to absurdity. The closest he can come to faith, or even momentary peace, is Bach.
I have not yet seen Through a Glass Darkly, so I realize that I'm still missing a part of the picture.

82jp said...

I also liked what you said about the lack of silence in The Silence. It still comes across as a quiet movie, strangely enough, but the genius of it that it's the "quiet" of solitude and disconnection rather than a literal quiet- a great use of irony, even if it doesn't take the most astute critic to note it :).