Full disclosure: The idea of a movie about God’s silence doesn’t set my pulse racing, despite whatever I have led you to believe about my tastes in cinema. In my defence however, I will state that it doesn’t turn me off to the point of not watching it. So I slipped in the DVD and settled down to watch Winter Light, a Bergman film about a pastor who has lost his faith since the death of his wife.
What a quiet, sad, affecting piece of film making this is! The principal characters seem to be living in their own private hell most of the time. The conversations are mostly monologues, with the other participant simply reacting to the speaker, and the dialogue is spare but brutally honest. The only “event” in the movie is the death of a supporting character, but even this does not lead to any dramatic closure.
And yet, Bergman managed to draw me into this world of oppressive silences and uncomfortable confessions. He made me care about these people. Even the pastor, who is the least sympathetic character in the film. I spent a good bit of time wondering how he managed to do that, and then it struck me.
The man doesn’t try to tell a story. He simply observes, and with such an unblinking eye that you become the man behind the lens. You simply cannot look away, and as a result, you get involved. I have seen directors do this for a segment of a movie, but rarely for the entire running length. I am so used to seeing movies where things keep happening that my initial reaction was to wonder how much discipline it took to keep so still as a filmmaker. But then I realized that I am thinking about taking things out of the movie, whereas Bergman probably thought upwards from a blank canvas.
I read that Bergman and his cinematographer Sven Nykvist spent an entire day sitting in the pews of an empty cathedral just to understand how light moves through the space. When I imagine how this would’ve happened, I don’t imagine them talking. In my mind’s eye, they sit there quietly through the day, with just a few words between them. They just sit there and do the job they came there to do.
The performances match up to the expectations this style of film making places on the actors. The camera stays focused on their faces so much of the time that it is impossible to be less than totally committed. The principal characters seem so tightly wound up that, when they speak, it is as if every little show of emotion leeches all their strength out of them.
I wonder whether I would recommend Winter Light to anyone. Films like this demand more than a passive viewing. You have to get involved, think about the issues that the characters think about and reach your conclusions without the director holding your hand every step of the way. And to make matters worse, none of these are happy people or easy issues.
Do you want to do that? Frankly, on most days, I don’t. But when I do, I am glad I took the effort.
ps: On a slightly more flippant note, there seems to be a Schrodinger’s Maa between this movie and Manoj N Shyamalan’s Signs.