Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1963, Sweden)

  Winter Light, the second film in Bergman’s existential crisis trilogy along with Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence, was one of the Bergman films that resonated the most with me when I first discovered the filmmaker. The film is by far one of the bleakest films in his canon, lingering on thoughts of nuclear war, a godless world, and suicide. There is clearly an almost diaristic or autobiographical quality to the film. Bergman was visibly influenced by his youth, growing up as the son of a Lutheran minister. He conducted interviews with a Lutheran minister, who described the scenario of a parishioner’s suicide. The concern about the Chinese obtaining a nuclear bomb was inspired by a newspaper article Bergman read. 

Winter Light was apparently Bergman’s favorite among his films, but the critical reception at the time it was released was lukewarm, even in the United States where Bergman had generally been viewed favorably. This is in some ways easy to understand. The film is virtually plotless. There are some challenging passages – the opening Church ritual goes on a for a long time. The scene in which pastor Tomas’s atheistic ex-mistress Marta reads a letter to him, facing the camera, also could have tested the patience of the audience at the time.

Winter Light represents Bergman’s ultimate grappling with questions of faith, and his subsequent films would largely abandon these issues, instead addressing questions of human love. There is a bleakness and rawness to Winter Light that makes it one of Bergman’s best films, accentuated by Sven Nykvist’s incredibly beautiful but bleak black and white cinematography. There are moments in Winter Light that stick in the memory long after the film has finished. It may not be a perfect film, but it is one of Bergman’s best and most Bergmanesque.  



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