The first thing that struck me watching Winter Light was the precision of the filmmaking. It’s been awhile since I’ve sat down with a Bergman, so my memory could be faulty, but I remember The Seventh Seal, and Wild Strawberries¸ and even Persona (one of my absolute favorites) feeling a bit frayed at the edges. Every edit and every shot in Winter Light seems precisely conceived. The mise-en-scene speaks volumes. There is no one as talented as Bergman at positioning actors within a frame for effect. It is a much sparser film than the earlier ones often touted as his best, and a much stronger one.
Austerity is fitting for a film about God’s silence. Bergman observes its effects primarily in the tortured faces of his players. During the opening scene in the church, I was consistently drawn to that of Ingrid Thulin. I fell in love with her as Tomas sits down to read her letter. Bergman wrenches every ounce of expression out of her face as he films her staring directly into the camera, sans glasses, reciting her words in a single take. A similarly powerful choice later in the film stages a scene fraught with emotional torment in front of a raging river, the roaring rapids drowning out the dialogue.
Bergman makes no claims as to whether God’s silence is a choice on the deity’s part or a result of his or her nonexistence. He merely asks that we all, believers and nonbelievers alike, question the courage of our convictions. It’s the uncertainty that troubles Marta in her atheism and Tomas and Jonas in their Christianity. Algot, the sexton, makes the astute observation that the doubt Jesus suffered on the cross, along with the departure of his disciples, must have been inifinitely more harrowing than the physical pain he suffered. He is the only character in the film who has bears the courage of his convictions, having taken Jesus’s directive to express himself with love to heart, and he’s all the better for it.
In Swedish the film’s title translate to “The Communicants.” It bears a double meaning. The opening scene features the films cast accepting communion, but these are characters incapable of articulating their feelings to one another. Algot said when Jesus’s disciples deserted him it must have been painful, realizing none of them had truly understood the things he had said. So it is for Tomas, whose attempt to empathize with Jonas only serves to hasten his demise, who unconscionably excoriates Marta, a woman he clearly cares deeply for. And also for Marta, who insists she is incapable of putting her love for Tomas into words. If only we knew how to communicate better, perhaps the pain of existence would be less acute.