We have all had times where we’ve questioned our faith, whether it’s faith in the terms of a religious sense, or faith in humanity. Bergman was very interested in exploring the lives of characters who dealt with an existential crisis, and used the medium of film to explore his own relationship with his faith, religious belief and relationship with God.
Winter Light is often considered part of a trilogy of films made up of Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and The Silence (1963), both of which I have written about previously. Although Bergman disputed the fact that he had declared these three films as part of a trilogy, they all do share similar themes, such as the theme of ‘God’s silence’ and a lack of communication between individuals which results in a loss of identity of some sorts.
The film starts with Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand) delivering a noon service, to only a handful of people. These including fisherman Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow), and his wife Karin (Gunnel Lindblom), and Tomas’s ex-mistress, school teacher Märta (Ingrid Thulin). After the service, the Perssons arrive to speak to Tomas who is eager to have some peace as he is coming down with a cold. Jonas has become morose after hearing that China is developing an atomic bomb and is worried about the current state of the world.
Tomas asks the man to return without his wife, believing he will be more open to discussion without her presence. As they leave Märta enters, and she attempts to comfort the Tomas, and asks if he’s read the letter she wrote to him. Tomas does eventually read her letter in which she discusses an incident where she had a rash which repulsed Tomas. And his prayers failed to rid her of the rash, proof to her that God is silent to Tomas’ prayers.
Jonas returns, and Tomas clumsily tries to provide counsel, before finally admitting that he has no faith as well. He says his faith was an egotistical one – God loved humanity, but He loved Tomas most of all. However this changed, when Toma was serving in Lisbon during the Spanish Civil War, and could not reconcile his loving God with the atrocities being committed, so he ignored them. Tomas finally tells Jonas that things make more sense if we deny the existence of God, because then man’s cruelty needs no explanation. Tomas’ words have dramatic consequences and many people’s lives change as a result.
I didn’t expect to find this film very enjoyable, and I was right. A very serious film, which discusses some profound issues that cannot be discussed in a light-hearted fashion. However, I did find this film incredibly moving, and engaging. Which seems odd, as I am not religious, but I realise now that this film isn’t just about one topic, it is open to many interpretations.
The character of Tomas is so cold especially towards Märta, and there’s one scene that takes place in her classroom which is heartbreaking to watch. The performances are awesome as usual in a Bergman’s film, especially from Björnstrand and Thulin. And the supporting cast are also very strong, with Von Sydow’s depressed fisherman being very relatable. The film has wonderful black-and-white cinematography which looks so striking that each and every frame is a piece of art. Oddly enough this film doesn’t have a soundtrack which is hardly noticeable and I believe a soundtrack would have made the film far too melodramatic.
Sandwiched between Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence, it might be easy to overlook Winter Light, but I would strongly encourage readers to seek this film out. It is a gripping film despite its lack of ‘action’, that does take place in a very human and emotional way – truly powerful stuff. I believe that this film would work best as a double bill with The Virgin Spring (1960), another Bergman film that dealt with a man’s faith in God and humanity being tested, it will be a hard viewing experience but a very rewarding one.