"Yes, Ingmar, it's a masterpiece. But it's a dreary masterpiece."
"The more you suffer/The more it shows you really care/Right?"
Winter Light is the second film in Ingmar Bergman's alleged trilogoy, following Through A Glass Darkly and preceding The Silence. The original Swedish title, Nattvardsgästerna, literally means "the Communicants." This is a double meaning: on the one hand, much of this film takes place inside a church, so the title refers most plainly to those accepting communion; on the other hand, it refers to those who are attempting to communicate. But with whom? Winter Light stars four of Ingmar Bergman's most frequent players, including my two favorites. Gunnar Björnstrand stars as Tomas Ericsson, a pastor who has been undergoing a perpetual crisis of faith for four years and his sometimes-mistress, the school teacher Märta, is played perfectly by the always brilliant Ingrid Thulin. Max von Sydow and Gunnel Lindblom play a couple torn apart by the former's angst over world events at the time. The first quote at the top was related to Ingmar Bergman by his then-wife after seeing Winter Light; the second should be familiar to anyone who's ever listened to a mainstream rock radio station in the last 7 or 8 years. Why they are both appropriate will become clear soon enough.
Do you remember going to church as a kid and wondering why you were there? You would stare at the walls as an old man at the front of the room droned on endlessly about things you didn't understand and occasionally yawn as your mother quietly reprimanded you. All the while, you hoped that it would just hurry up and be over so you could go home and do whatever it is that you wanted to do. This is the feeling that Bergman captures at the beginning of Winter Light, which takes place primarily in a small country church in rural Sweden in the 1960s. Father Tomas gives a rather generic sermon about forgiveness and Christ's suffering before offering communion. With only eight people in attendance, only five of them step to the altar to accept the Body of Christ: the Perssons (von Sydow and Lindblom), Algot (a physically-handicapped handiman), an old woman who goes unnamed, and Märta. The sermon concludes and all the parishioners save Algot leave. Tomas retires to a room to count the day's meager offerings and Algot asks to speak to him. Tomas tells him that they can speak later in the day, for altough he is physically ill (arguably with a lesser form of the mysterious Bergman disease), he has to give another sermon that evening at the church in the nearby town of Frostnäs since that parish's pastor is busy test-driving his new car.
This rather ludicrous excuse for not conducting a church service seems patently offensive even to an atheist such as myself (and indeed to Bergman) but it makes sense. It is clear that the entire town is possessed by a spiritual malaise that often manifests itself in illnesses. As Algot leaves, the Perssons enter and ask to have a word with Tomas. He agrees and Karin tells him that her husband, Jonas, has been feeling depressed and anxious over the disturbing news that China has been experimenting with nuclear weapons. Jonas affirms this, saying he read in the newspaper that the Chinese are taught to hate and that since they have nothing to lose, they will ultimately surrender to their hate and devastate the world. Tomas awkwardly tries to assauge Jonas' fears by telling him that if they put their faith in God, everything will turn out all right, one way or another. This does little to console Jonas and Karin suggests that he return later to have a private discussion with Tomas about the matter. Realizing he has done little to actually help the man then and there, he tells him to come back in 20 minutes. Notice that while Tomas has no time for Algot, the devoted Christian, he is willing to speak to Jonas not just once, but twice, over an extended period of time. Tomas is either uncomfortable with or frankly intimidated by the devout, but is content to speak with the clearly troubled Jonas. The reason for this will become clearer later on.
As Jonas leaves, Tomas collapses into an emotional heap and Märta comes to join him. He receives her coolly, asking why she took the communion. She shrugs it off, saying that she did it because she thought it would be helpful to him. He then proceeds to reveal his spiritual insecurities to her, telling her that God is remote and that he's terrified by God's silence. She tells him that the reason God is silent is because he doesn't exist and then says that they should get married. She then tells him to read the letter she wrote to him and says that although she loves him, she can't make him love her. Märta leaves and Tomas reads the letter. The manner in which Bergman chose to shoot this scene is interesting; instead of a voice-over or a flashback, it's simply a close-up of Märta looking directly into the camera and giving us a monologue. I'd like to say that this was not the first film in which I had seen Ingrid Thulin. I sympathized with her in Wild Strawberries and was slightly frightened of her in Cries and Whispers, but it wasn't until I saw this film -- and specifically this scene -- that I truly fell in love with her. She speaks so earnestly, honestly, matter-of-factly, and from the heart that it seems like Thulin is spilling her guts to her love rather than her character's. She relates an incident some months earlier when she and Tomas were decorating the church for a confirmation and she was suffering from rashes on her hands. The rashes obviously disgusted Tomas and she relates a histrionic argument they had in which she cried out to God about why she had to suffer so much. She then claims to have experienced an epiphany -- she has come to realize that her purpose in life is to be of use to someone and that that someone, obviously, is Tomas.
Terrified by the implications of the letter, Tomas hastily shoves the sheets of paper on which it was written back into the envelope as Jonas returns. They begin their conversation which starts out innocuosly enough; Jonas reveals that he is a fisherman, an occupation with obvious religious overtones. On the subject of Jonas' suicidal thoughts, Tomas relates the story of the death of his wife and the huge impact that naturally had on his life and on his faith. But Tomas tells Jonas that we still must go on living through difficult times. Jonas looks at the pastor and simply asks "why?" Tomas stares at him for a moment before undergoing a complete nervous breakdown. Tomas tells Jonas that there's no difference between God's existence or his nonexistence as far as life is concerned (since God is, in his words, a "monstrous spider God," a reference to a statement made by the protagonist of Through A Glass Darkly), but that it would make death so much easier if he did not. He then plainly explains that he has no faith in God and Jonas quietly leaves. Tomas goes back into the church and sees Märta waiting for him. He glances out the window and proclaims "I'm free." He then falls to the floor in a coughing fit and sobs as Märta consoles him, the unconditional love she promised in her letter showing through.
At this time, the old woman who took communion reappears in the church, highly distraught. She brings the unsurprising news that Jonas Persson has committed suicide by the lake close to the church. Tomas drives to the lake and sees the man's body, his isolation highlighted by the very wide shot that shows only two people: Tomas and the presently deceased Jonas. Märta has followed him on foot, but Tomas tells her to wait in the car. Crushed by something he knows to be his fault, the two silently drive to Märta's house where Tomas asks for some cough syrup and aspirin. While inside, a young boy enters to get something from his desk (since Märta's house doubles as her classroom) and Tomas discovers that the boy's brother is in confirmation classes (although he finds them pointless and boring) and that he is sick. This is important because it yet again shows the connection between a spiritual sickness and a physical one.
Märta brings Tomas his medicine but they get into an argument in which she tells him that she thinks he hates her. Tomas tells her that he's tired of the gossip about town because, after all, "what is a pastor good for" if he keeps a teacher as a mistress? Märta is too smart for this, however, and Tomas launches into a scathing assault on her. Tomas is following the course that had been ascribed to the Chinese earlier on: he's become consumed by something resembling hate and he has nothing to lose by letting it all out. He tears her apart and complains that she's annoying, passive, stupid, and -- most significantly -- that she is nothing compared to his dead wife. This may seem unduly harsh, but Tomas' attack on Märta is really just the logical counterpart to her letter that frightened and devastated him. He's doing the same to her and she's responding in the way he never could -- she openly weeps. Märta is the only way Tomas can experience true emotion any longer, so he deliberately hurts her to feel through her.
It works equally well for her, too: Märta is Christlike in that her function is to love Tomas unconditionally, no matter how much it hurts her. She suffers in the same way that Christ suffered, with the scars on her hands being the clearest symbol of this. It is significant that Tomas asks the rhetorical question about "what good is a pastor?" and that Märta is a teacher. They have both chosen professions that fundamentally are designed to be of some use to other people: they are both miserable because they cannot be of help. This is why Tomas dismissed Algot at the beginning of the film; Algot is no good to him because he's no good to Algot. Put another way, he's like an insurance agent: is he going to try to sell to someone who just got a new life insurance policy or to someone who has never had one? He realizes, though, that he failed Jonas and that he has to tell the man's wife. After he finishes his rant, Märta tells him her problem is that she turns her hate into compassion. He sighs and asks if she wants to go with him to Frostnäs. She asks "I don't have a choice, do I?" Of course she doesn't. Her self-sacrificial nature prevents her from taking any other course of action and Tomas' emotiona parasitism prohibited him from not making the offer.
First, Tomas has to visit Mrs. Persson and give her the bad news. After telling her about it, he immediately asks if she'd like to read the Bible with him. She declines and seems angrier than she is sad. He remarks "there was so little I could do." This means two things: first, and the way he hopes Mrs. Persson will take it, it means that Jonas had already made up his mind and nothing he could do would change it; second, but more honestly, it means that he simply lacked the spiritual power and the wherewithal to do anything but depress the man further. He leaves as Mrs. Persson goes to tell the kids.
Our lovers arrive at Frostnäs to find the church empty except for the obviously drunk organist and Algot. Algot and Tomas have their talk and Algot asks him about Christ's passion. He says that the more he reads it, the less awful the physical torture seems. Rather, he believes the real torment stemmed from the psychology surrounding Christ's arrest and his crucifixion. Being abandoned, betrayed, and denied by everyone, Algot insists, is far worse than four hours of physical pain. After a long silence, Tomas agrees and decides that although the only people who will be attending the service are Algot and Märta, he is bound by his function/duty as a priest not to abandon the flock and proceeds to hold a mass. The film ends as Tomas beams apprehensively but radiantly into the camera in much the same way as he did at the beginning of the film.
Although short, Winter Light is a rewarding film. Björnstrand and Thulin are perfect and make the movie very compelling. The theme of strength through suffering reappears and the final scene proves Tomas' point about God's existence: regardless of whether or not there is a God, and irrespective of his own doubts, it is his duty to be there and to serve his function. This is Bergman's optimism for spiritual/emotional teleology; despite being mostly "dreary" and dealing with depressing subject matter, the relationship between Tomas and Märta is at its essence a necessary and beneficial one for two people seeking to mean something to somebody. They love each other in a way that neither can explain (she admits in her letter that she has problems of showing her love and it's obvious that he does as well) but that both must ultimately accept. Of the three films that comprise the triology, this is the best. See it for the two lead actors, who truly shine in highly atypical roles as well as for the simply gorgeous cinematography courtesy of Sven Nykvist.