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Winter Light
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by Dr. Isaksson

"Icy lands freeze all the hope here"
3 stars

It's odd, but Ingmar Bergman decided in the late '50s to write and create a trilogy of films based on people struggling with life which ultimately leads them to question the strength of their faith. Or if they ever had any to begin with. It's easy to ask why Bergman even decided to deal with such a topic, for he has never been one who has felt at ease with having faith in a creator. Yet three films were based on this aspect of his thinking at the time. The first of the three was the highly acclaimed "Through a Glass Darkly," which was released in 1961 and won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. The third is the dramatic "The Silence". The second film is the one I'm writing about now, entitled "Winter Light" and yes, it is as cold and icy as the title suggests.

There's a cold and dreary church in a small Swedish town where a Lutheran priest named Thomas (played by the old Bergman favorite Gunner Bjornstrand) is finding himself slipping into a religious crisis. For years he has been living nearly alone, faithfully doing his pastoral duties, but then unexpectedly, in the bleak days of winter, Thomas' growing uncertainty suddenly and surprisingly comes to a climax. A lonely schoolteacher named Marta (Ingrid Thulin) has been sharing a home with Thomas to help with expenses. She was raised with no religious belief but has been willing to 'believe' if Thomas would only love her the way she has loved him for many years. She wishes to marry Thomas and asks him frequently to marry her but Thomas has remained aloof to her pleas. Strangely, their needs are similar in that both are looking for something to restore their happiness and with that gained happiness then maybe they each could believe in 'something.'

There is a small and tattered congregation of people who come to the church where Thomas preaches, and it is here he is introduced to a troubled man named Jonas Persson (Max Von Sydow). His wife (Gunnel Lindblom) has been harassed by overwhelming fears for her husband's mortality. Jonas is in a greatly troubled state. He has let the world's problems crowd his mind and fears that a war could break out at any time, and the atomic destruction that would surely follow. By the time he meets up with Thomas, Jonas has shut himself off from the world and has closed off his emotions. He rarely speaks but after some persuading from Thomas, his silence is broken. After hearing of Jonas' suffocating doubts, Parson Thomas suddenly and horribly realizes that he himself cannot continue to conceal his own troubles and allows them to surface, telling Jonas that he must admit to him that he cannot counsel others for deep in his own heart he is not quite certain that God exists either. And even if he did, would that really change the doubt and fears that they both feel? Could it change them? This conclusion pushes Jonas too far and the results are devastating.

During this trouble Marta has decided that she must reveal her feelings toward Thomas and does so with meek desperation. This only serves to awaken the anger within Thomas all the more and he unleashes a torrent of spite at Marta which was unknown to her for many years. Thomas is uncertain that he can ever love anyone ever again. Past deaths have damaged him and he finds no point in trying to pretend because that's all it would be to him. For Marta comes the realization that she must question her motives of the hope that she could attain the love of another. Is this just a selfish desire or does she truly feel this way? Is she seeking the wrong love? Is there someone else who can love her unconditionally?

Doubt is the resounding element in Winter Light. It seeps into every single person's blood and each and every one is uncertain of their place in the world and of the feelings of hope and faith that they should contain but have been unable to connect with. Needless to say, the film is very subdued and depressing and unusually bleak, even for Bergman. I couldn't help but think that it was created with a slightly selfish need of Bergman's to unleash some of his own uncertainties and doubts. I wonder if Thomas' doubts are not just a carbon copy of those which plagued Ingmar Bergman at the time. And so with this in mind I had trouble viewing this as an artist's work and saw it more as a stark piece of morose film making and not one that raises questions and asks them to be answered. I think most of the characters in Winter Light answered their own questions of faith before the film even began.

Another surprise is that I didn't get much delight out of the cinematic work here, done, as always, by Sven Nyqvist. In Winter Light there are no dream sequences and no moments where a nice camera trick would be needed, so it all comes across as cold and stone-like, which is what Bergman probably intended, but it left me a little TOO cold. The characters, due to their hopeless nature, came across as uninvolving and that was another big problem for me. The performances are good and Gunner Bjornstand is great as Thomas, but still nothing really stands out as earth shattering. It's all as solid as the stone that held up the church.

Everything is frozen and dead in "Winter Light" and its stubborn belief in its lack of hope or faith kept me distanced. If this was the film's intentions then it definitely succeeded. ** 1/2 Stars

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=8024&reviewer=296
originally posted: 07/23/03 23:30:17
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User Comments

1/22/08 Timothy Wolfis A stirring film from beginning to end. 5 stars
8/08/05 Aleksandar Uniquely profound 5 stars
10/23/04 Silent Watcher Not his best but still an excellent film... 4 stars
8/18/03 William McKeldin, Jr. Perhaps one of the sparest feature films ever made--it's also one of the best. 5 stars
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