Winter Light (1963)

While I’m not a big fan of Ingmar Bergman’s work, I’ve always been fascinated by Winter Light. Returning to it again, I still find myself struggling with Bergman’s style, but the material of this film is so provoking and so good that, too a degree, I’m able to look past some of my difficulties with Bergman’s style in order to engage in the fantastic conversation Bergman enters into through the idea of the silence of God.

Thomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand), pastor of a small church in a smaller town, finds himself plagued with spiritual doubt and despair. It makes his attempt to console a local man, Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow), thinly veiled attempts to work out his own issues. Compounding all this is the affections of Märta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin), an atheist and schoolteacher who’s deeply in love with Tomas and constantly dotes on him even as he broods.

It’s the relationship between Märta and Tomas that sustains most of the film as both are desperately caught up in this desire for love in a loveless life. Yet both are looking in difference places. Tomas looks to the divine, but finds himself distraught over the silence of God while Märta hopes to find it in Tomas, a man who is her opposite in so many ways her affections seemed doomed from the onset.

While the silence of God is the obvious thematic crux of the film and there are some compelling conversations that flesh out the argument, it’s the lack of love that continues to compel me. It makes me think about a passage in the Bible that’s extremely apt: “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” from James 2:17. Tomas throughout the film never once shows a true work of love and as a result it is seen that his faith is completely dead. He can go through the motions, hold the sacraments, but he cannot escape his dead faith.

Gunnar Björnstrand’s fantastic performance does a great job at conveying the spiritual anguish and self-absorption that consumes Tomas. He spends so much time brooding in self-reflection and becomes so caught up in his own affairs that he begins to emotionally implode. In moments where one expects a pastor to convey empathy or love, one is only left with Gunnar’s soulless gaze.

Where I take umbrage with the film is Bergman’s stifling visual formalism. This does create a more introspective aesthetic which makes for some fantastic and bold images, but I find it becomes suffocating and limiting after a while, almost constructed to a fault as there’s this constant awareness of precise composition. Therefore, Bergman’s aesthetic becomes anti-naturalism and begins to intrude against the immersion into the narrative and characters.

The film builds to this great ending where finally a voice of insight pierces through this shroud of doubt and darkness. An unlikely character makes a deep insight that speaks directly to Tomas’ struggle. Instead of Bergman using this point as a place for character resolution, it’s simply a provoking thought which bridges into the closing moments of the film.

Winter Light is a bleak and fascinating look into deep despair. At times, it’s perhaps a bit too overwrought and overwhelming, but it makes up for it with a strong conclusion. While I personally like the style and approach of Diary of a Country Priest more, I think there’s a lot to admire and engage with in Bergman’s much bleaker approach to the same issues of inner-doubt and spiritual torment.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing