"Erectile tissue. It's all a matter of swollen tissue and secretion. A confession before extreme unction: semen smells nasty to me."
Swedish director Ingmar Bergman has never won any awards for his cheeriness and one of the least cheery entries into his canon of films is a strange little 1963 film called the Silence. Bergman alleged at one time that the film was the culmination of a "trilogy" about communication with God, beginning with 1961's Through A Glass Darkly (Såsom I En Spegel, which won that year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture) and continuing with 1963's Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, which was more deserving of such an honor than its overrated predecessor). Now, however, Bergman repudiates that claim and says that the idea looked better on paper through the bottom of a glass of scotch. I would have to agree with him, despite the fact that two of his best films came from this non-trilogy. Unfortunately, both of them have a tendency to be overshadowed by Through A Glass Darkly, which in my opinion is the weakest of the three films for a number of reasons, the biggest of which are (a) that it is too melodramatic and too over-the-top in its depiction of the protagonist's mental decay and (b) its ending is a thrown together non sequitur that means little. The Silence, on the other hand, is insane but taut in its madness and the ending is appropriate.
The film stars my favorite Swedish actress, the versatile and beautiful Ingrid Thulin, in the role of Ester, a translator who has become seriously ill during a trip with her sister Anna (the curvacious and sexy-as-hell Gunnel Lindblom) and her nephew Johan (Jörgen Lindström). They are traveling through the Eastern Bloc by train and stop in the fictional country of Timoka, a completely militarized pseudo-industrial wasteland with an incomprehensible language. We learn little in the first scene about the main characters but we do get to see that the train is populated by military officers and see through the eyes of young Johan the heavy artillery that predominates the countryside. This is our first clue that a conflict is on the horizon.
Ester, Anna, and Johan stop at an elegant hotel to give Ester time to recuperate from her mysterious sickness. The "unknown illness" is a common theme in many of Bergman's films, but it's the operative inverse of Victorian Novel Disease, which sees the afflicted (universally a woman or a small child) become preternaturally and ethereally beautiful before being whisked away to rest for eternity in peace. The Bergman disease is cruel, brutal, hard to watch, and all the more frustrating because the audience has no idea what it is. Ester and Anna disagree about the temperature of the room, with the former saying she's cold and the latter saying she's hot. Anna decides to have a bath and has her Johan scrub her back in a manner that suggests a quiet and inappropriate sensuality between mother and son (further accentuated by Anna's missive for Johan to take off his clothes so that they can take a nap). All this time, Ester sits in the other room to drink, smoke, and masturbate listlessly.
Bored of his nap, Johan travels around the hotel in a manner that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever seen the Shining. He eventually happens upon a troupe of Spanish dwarves who perform at the bar across the street. He "shoots" them with his capgun and they pretend to fall down dead. It is significant that Johan points his gun at people and shoots them before speaking with them, as this ties back to the militaristic theme of the film. At all times, a war seems imminent, and war is by definition the complete breakdown or absence of meaningful communication between two or more parties. They invite him into their room to play and joke around, bizarrely dressing him up as a little girl before the group's infuriated manager returns and scolds them for fooling around. Johan is politely shown the door and then urinates in the hallway as a silent act of defiance. Back at the hotel room, Anna tells Ester she's going out and Ester has a panic attack. She calls the concierge to bring her some food, but they can only communicate in hand gestures and murmurs. Anna goes to a cafe and buys a newspaper (which she plainly cannot read) while her waiter takes a look between her spread legs beneath the table.
Johan returns to the room and speaks with Ester, who offers him some of her lunch. She tries to rub his cheek in a show of affection, but he withdraws coldly. He offers to draw Ester a picture and he proceeds to draw what appears to be a picture of Dracula. Anna goes to see the "Chin Varieties" show, where the dwarves are performing a ludicrous dance routine. Most significantly, however, she sees a man and a woman having sex in the audience, something that clearly arouses her. Anna leaves the place with a new mission: to get laid. She wades through a sea of men on the street looking for a suitable candidate, including several uniformed partisans. She settles on the waiter she allowed to catch a glimpse of her at the cafe. Meanwhile, Johan meets the concierge who brought Ester her lunch and the concierge offers him some chocolate and shows him pictures of a funeral in the countryside, apparently trying to explain their significance to Johan who, obviously, cannot understand a word he is saying. Johan sees his mother coming, however, and runs off with the old man's pictures, stashing them under a rug for no discernible reason. Ester and Anna discuss the latter's whereabouts as Ester spies on Anna undressing and washing her semi-nude body.
Full mobilization begins in the streets and in the bedroom. Ester and Anna ignore each other as Johannes Sebastian Bach plays on the radio. They argue over Anna's sexual dalliances and it is clear from the way Ester stares at her sister and licks her neck that there is something very wrong with their relationship. Ester sees Anna as being cruel for "betraying" her, but really depends on her sister as her gateway to sensation. The familiar shot of two halves of two faces being framed in such a way that it represents a whole person is seen for the first time here, although more famously in Bergman's follow-up Persona and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. In the same way that Alma and Elisabeth or Betty and Rita represent two halves of the same woman in those films, Ester and Anna are coequal partners of a single entity. Ester is an awkward, intellectual loner who never leaves the room throughout the course of the film and prefers to work on her new translation and masturbate. Anna is a comfortable, sensual extrovert who can't stand being in the room and prefers to wander the streets of Timoka and pick up men for meaningless sex.
As Anna leaves Johan and Ester, it is at this point that Johan begins to become closer to his aunt. He goes into Ester's room and watches through the window as a tank barrels down the street. Johan and Anna have a more meaningful conversation from before, and asks why his mother doesn't love him any longer. He weeps silently and Ester holds him close, giving her the affection he had denied her earlier and bolstering Ester's confidence. He then tells Ester where Anna and her anonymous lover have wandered off to and she decides to confront them. Anna tells her lover how nice it is that they can't understand each other while he stares out a window. When Ester knocks on the door to their room, Anna arranges it so that her sister walks in and sees them having sex. While taken aback by this at first, Ester eventually shakes her head and says that she feels sorry for Anna. Anna criticizes Ester for her belief that "everything has to have a meaning" and then calls Ester a petty, hateful person. Ester patronizes her sister calling her "poor Anna," which upsets her greatly. Ester leaves the room as Anna laughs uproariously and then begins to sob uncontrollably before the waiter sodomizes her. Ester realizes that she has won the moral victory (whatever it is at this point) but doesn't care because she has, in effect, lost her sister. What was the purpose of their confrontation? This was the final battle in the war between the two sisters: what territory was gained?
The next day, Johan and Anna decide to leave. Ester is going to stay in Timoka, presumably to die. Much to Anna's bemusement, however, Johan seems reluctant to leave his aunt, and promises he'll return. Ester and the concierge sit together and she begins a long, rambling diatribe he cannot understand. He stares confusedly at her as she details her distaste for sexual intercourse in cold, clinical terms. She has another attack and he stares impotently at her, naïvely and obliviously unable to comprehend what is going on. It's clear that Ester has retreated to a very peculiar place in her mind, which is the natural consequence of her lifetime of silence. Anna and Johan return to collect their things and leave, with Ester giving Johan a list of words in the Timokan language and what they mean. Johan hugs Ester before being pulled away by his mother.
On the train, Johan reads his letter, in which Anna can see no value. It is titled "TO JOHAN: WORDS IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE." The words she has written are "hand" and "face." It is clear, then, what the war between the two sisters was really fought over and who ultimately triumphed: it was a struggle for the love and attention of Johan and it is plain that Ester emerged victorious. For although Anna is obviously warmer, she doles out physical affection without regard for the meaning behind it or the person to whom it goes. Ester is cold and logical, which is why her gestures of affection for Johan are all the more important and all the more special; she rarely offers them to anyone and only after long and deliberate consideration. Anna's behavior has caused her to lose her son's love and she can't even recognize it.
This is truly one of Bergman's most difficult films to watch. As the title implies, the dialogue is quite sparse. Beyond that, what dialogue there is is always emotionally raw and is always countered by painful recriminations in the Tennessee Williams style. This is the most abstract of the "trilogy" and probably the least liked or understood. For viewers of the triology, there are two main camps: those who prefer Through A Glass Darkly and those who find it weak and nonsensical. I fit into the second group and so prefer this film (although Winter Light is, for my money, the superior film). However, the Silence is not a film for Bergman amateurs. If you see the Silence before any other Bergman films, there's a good chance you'll be repulsed by the man. Start with the Seventh Seal and move onto Wild Strawberries. If you liked those, see Persona. If you can handle that one, you can handle any Bergman film, including this one.