As every fan of Ingmar Bergman knows, the filmmaker had a complicated relationship with his father. But when he decided to write a screenplay about a priest and his spiritual doubts, Bergman asked his father to read it. Erik Bergman, a retired chaplain to the Swedish royal court, read it three times, according to his son. Perhaps they found a common connection there. Winter Light may not be one of the director’s most famous works, but a sermon well worth hearing and seeing.
It is late November, somewhere out in the countryside. In a medieval church, pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand) offers communion and a final prayer to conclude his noon service. Very few people are attending and the ceremony has a sleepy, stale feeling to it. Tomas is not well, suffering from the flu, but agrees to meet with two of the congregants, the Perssons (Max von Sydow, Gunnel Lindblom). Karin is worried about her husband Jonas, a fisherman, who’s depressed, constantly worrying about the news, especially China and the fact that the Communist regime might develop nuclear weapons. Tomas tries to offer Jonas solace, but when they speak in private the conversation turns more to the pastor’s own troubled relationship with God.
At the same time, Tomas has a loyal companion in Märta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin), a considerably younger teacher. She loves him, but she’s also fairly convinced that the feelings are not mutual. Märta has left Tomas a letter that she wants him to read…
Haunted by the Spanish civil war
The second chapter in a trilogy on faith, Winter Light is superior to its follow-up, The Silence (released the same year), and just as good as its predecessor, Through a Glass Darkly (1961). All three films have independent stories and characters, but share similar themes. The first film ended on a positive note, declaring that God equals love, but this film questions that notion. Does he exist at all? If so, why this punishing silence? It’s no coincidence that the leading character’s name is Tomas, because he is certainly full of doubts, telling the depressed fisherman all about his experiences from the Spanish civil war, where he turned away from the horrors of real life and encapsulated himself together with his god. This continues to haunt him.
The same degree of honesty is present when the pastor reads the letter from Märta where she reminds him of that time when she had a really bad rash, which disgusted Tomas who started praying for her. That did nothing for Märta who also tells him in the letter about how she was raised in a family that didn’t believe in God but was still full of warmth and love. Eventually, we learn that Tomas is unable to put the death of his late wife behind him, always making unfair comparisons between her and Märta. Is it possible for this man and this woman to create a lasting union between them – and is it possible for the pastor to be a better shepherd to his congregation than perhaps God, who remained silent while his son was tortured and murdered on Earth?
Perhaps it took a lot of courage for Bergman to approach his father with these thoughts and ask for his opinion. In any case, the film is a riveting meditation.
Coldly and strikingly shot, the movie’s cinematography lives up to its title. There’s something fascinating (and at times mildly humorous) about the pastor’s routines in that sleepy, thousand-year-old church; as always, Bergman captures the hidden passion and sorrow underneath it all. His perennial collaborator Björnstrand shines in the best role of his career, but Thulin is also terrific as the devoted woman in his life.
Winter Light 1963-Sweden. 81 min. B/W. Produced by Allan Ekelund. Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. Cinematography: Sven Nykvist. Cast: Gunnar Björnstrand (Tomas Ericsson), Ingrid Thulin (Märta Lundberg), Gunnel Lindblom (Karin Persson), Max von Sydow, Allan Edwall, Kolbjörn Knudsen… Eddie Axberg.
Trivia: Original title: Nattvardsgästerna.
Last word: “There is a tension between Ingmar and Gunnar. It has evidently increased the last few days. What it consists of I don’t really know yet. With Gunnar I notice a feeling of not being free; an idea that Ingmar has a deep contempt for actors, ‘And when you’ve done a good job, you still don’t get the credit for it yourself.’ With Ingmar I notice an aggressiveness which he cannot camouflage: his tone is sharp, and Gunnar tightens up still more. Gunnar is silent or aggressive in return. Ingmar seems disappointed. Gunnar too. How is that tension going to affect the film?” (Assistant director Vilgot Sjöman during the making of the film, IngmarBergman.se)