Pain is seemingly always around us. Whether it is the pain we inflict upon ourselves or pain that comes unannounced and undeserved, we have all met days where the feeling was visceral and crippling. What are we to do on those days? Why does such pain exist?
Cries and Whispers is a film with a clear focus on pain. It was also the first Ingmar Bergman film in color that I ever watched. I equate his films so much with the stark black-and-white imagery of The Seventh Seal, Persona and Through a Glass Darkly, that it was certainly a change of pace to see a color Bergman film.
However, Bergman doesn’t just haphazardly bring color into this film. His use of crimson is intentional and adds so much. It evokes the focus on pain from the very design of the film. The characters are literally living in a world of blood and pain. Bergman was collaborating, once again, with cinematographer Sven Nykvist. The film’s cinematography won an Academy Award in 1972, and it is the defining element of the film, for me. The lush interiors of this mansion jump off the screen and pull you into this story.
It is a story that centers on three sisters – Agnes (Harriet Andersson), Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann), living in the vast mansion with crimson walls. Agnes is stricken with a debilitating disease that is slowly wasting her away. She is cared for by the family maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan), who has dealt with her own forms of pain. These four actresses each give fantastic performances, and the film’s stature is due in large part to their work.
Ingmar Bergman so often used the human face as the focal point of his cinema. He lets shots linger on one face or two so that we can see all the nonverbal cues that facial expressions portray. Agnes’ face tells a story of unbelievable pain. The performance from Andersson is a powerhouse, evoking so much. When you think about it, it is non-verbal communication that really lends itself to a visual medium. Silent films understood this better than many modern films that utilize sound to describe and explain what the human face can do all on its own. Bergman knew this, and Cries and Whispers is one of the best examples of his mastery of the technique.
At various times, one character’s face will fill the screen before a dark background as we hear faint whispers in the air. These are the cries and whispers of the film’s title, but they are never explained or deconstructed, save for the film’s final shot. Even that does not give an expository definition, but rather leaves for the viewer to consider what the film is trying to say.
Agnes may suffer from a disease, but she is not the only sister facing great pain. We shudder at the outward warmth and inner coldness of Maria – who we soon learn has had an affair with the family doctor. Because of this, Maria’s husband, Joakim (Henning Moritzen), commits suicide. She finds him in the act and her coldness to him is shocking.
At the same time, Karin has a bevy of repressed feelings just waiting to explode. For much of the film, she bottles her emotion and wears a steely expression on her face. But after Agnes’ sickness finally consumes her, Karin releases those repressed emotions in startling ways. In one scene with her husband, Fredrik (Georg Arlin), she inflicts pain on her own body in an extremely sensitive fashion. She also lashes out at Maria, saying what has long been bottled up inside.
Anna is the only character who exudes grace. She cares for Agnes in such loving ways. Even after Agnes’ death, there is still a deep love there. We learn that Anna lost a child. She is no stranger to pain. And yet, she has found it within herself to care for Agnes.
I must also give credit to the film’s sound design. So much of the film is quiet save for the sound of ticking clocks and people eating or drinking. There is a starkness and a coldness to this film that is underscored by the very sound of it. The technical prowess displayed here is of the highest order. Silence is employed as a sound here just as much as Agnes’ painful screams.
Early in the film, we watch as Agnes begins writing in a diary. Her first entry is on a Monday, and she explains that she is in pain. At the end of the film, after the sisters have left, Anna finds the journal and reads from another entry, on a Wednesday. It tells of a time soon after Karin and Maria arrived to watch over Agnes. They all went outside and walked together to the old swing they used as children. Anna pushed them as they laughed together in the sunlight. It was a beautiful moment. The entry ends with the following: “I wanted to cling to that moment, and I thought, ‘Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection and I feel profoundly grateful to my life, which gives me so much.” Then the film closes with a title card that reads “Thus the cries and whispers fall silent.”
There is a scene earlier in the film where a priest (Anders Ek) visits the family after Agnes’ death. He prays by her bedside and delivers some of the most moving lines of dialogue I’ve ever heard in a film. They feel like messages straight from Bergman’s soul.
“Agnes, my dear child, listen to what I tell you now. Pray for those of us left behind on this dark and miserable earth beneath a cruel and empty sky. Lay your suffering at God’s feet and plead with him to pardon us. Plead with him to free us of our anxiety, our weariness, and our deepest doubts. Plead with him to give meaning to our lives.”
The moments of grace and human connection that we are able to find amid the pain that besets our lives will ultimately silence those anxious thoughts and doubts. Ingmar Bergman himself highlighted Cries and Whispers as one of his best films. I think it’s because he was able to visually convey some of his deepest beliefs and values. While the result is a film I found to be more detached than some of Bergman’s others, it is no less powerful. It is impossible to watch this film and walk away unaffected.
You may have recognized the title of this review. It refers to a book by C.S. Lewis that investigates the basic question – If pain exists in the world, what does that say about God? Does He lack goodness, power, or both? Agnes doesn’t deserve her unbeatable pain. The priest even says that she had more faith than he did. Even he doesn’t know how to rationalize the fact that she endured so much grief and pain in her short time of life. What are we to make of a life like that of Agnes?
I am sure that Ingmar Bergman wrestled with these questions, as his father was a minister and his films so often deal with issues of faith and religion. Some questions seem to be unknowable in this life. But if we are going to question the presence of pain and death, we must also consider why moments of sheer bliss and otherworldly grace break into the darkness of our lives. Agnes’ journal will forever be a reminder to me that, amid all the pain, there are moments of beauty for us to hold onto. That’s worth something.
“Thus the cries and whispers fall silent.”