After growing up in a conservative religious environment, I went through a period in college where I questioned aspects of my faith and went through some serious doubts. I came to the conclusion that, since my faith is the foundation of my life, it’s worth questioning.
Because of that personal history, I’ve had an interesting relationship with Winter Light – Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 drama about a doubting pastor. I recently watched the film for a second time and was overcome by its power while also being startled by its bleak outlook. Winter Light will forever be a reminder to me of how to best interact with a film as a viewer.
We begin with a familiar scene. A pastor named Tomas (Gunnar Bjornstrand) is serving communion to his congregation. The camera lingers on the ornamental decorations of this church and underscores the gravity of this scene. Bergman’s films are known for their stark imagery, but this opening scene takes it to even another level.
As Ingmar Bergman so often does in his films, the camera also lingers on the faces of the people to whom Tomas serves communion. Bergman believed that the face was the greatest cinematic landscape, and he allowed his actors to communicate as much with their faces as they did with dialogue.
One of the church members approaches Tomas after the service. Her name is Karin Persson (Gunnel Lindblom), and her husband, Jonas (Max von Sydow), is struggling with news of worldwide rumors of war. He cannot shake this gloom, and Karin believes the pastor can help him.
Karin and Jonas go home after church, but Jonas agrees to return 20 minutes later to talk with Tomas. While they are gone, a woman named Marta (Ingrid Thulin) comes to meet the pastor. We learn that she and Tomas are romantically involved. She does not believe in God, but she loves Tomas dearly. That love is not reciprocated, however. At first, Tomas says that it is because of the stain on his reputation that would result from the congregation finding out about this dalliance. As the movie continues, however, we learn there is more to Tomas’ story.
Ingrid Thulin gives, in my estimation, the film’s best performance. That is high praise considering how strong of an actor Gunnar Bjornstrand was. He certainly gives a fine performance in the lead role, but it is Thulin that must run the gamut of emotions in her role. There is always more beneath the surface of her facial expressions.
Tomas falls asleep and wakes up to realize that Jonas has arrived. They begin to talk about some of his concerns. Very quickly, however, the conversation turns to Tomas’ own doubts. Jonas cannot even get a word in. After a while, he leaves, and we find that Tomas’ confession had drastic consequences.
Setting aside the film’s thematic elements for a second, I must credit the work of Sven Nykvist. He so often worked with Bergman that their collaborations have become the stuff of legend. He must surely be one of the greatest cinematographers of all time. Possibly taking a cue from the film’s title, he finds such interesting ways to use light in this film – as it shines in from the large church windows.
The remainder of the film follows Tomas as he works through his own crippling doubt. This affects his other relationships, most notably his relationship with Marta. In a later scene, Tomas rejects any romantic feelings for her, only to invite her to the service he is holding later that day at a nearby church.
As they prepare for the service, the church remains empty except for Marta, Tomas, the organist and Algot, the church sexton. Algot comes back to talk to Tomas about whether or not they will continue the service with such a small congregation. In the meantime, they engage in a discussion about Christ’s crucifixion that had me transfixed. It is not the type of conversation one is used to seeing in a movie. Algot wonders about what Christ felt when he cried out that God had forsaken him. Was the emotional pain worse than the physical pain?
At the same time, Marta – who had earlier made clear that she did not believe in the existence of God – is sitting on a pew praying. She asks for the ability to believe. This is my favorite shot in the film, as her face is silhouetted against the light coming in through the large windows – the winter light.
The thing I have to remember as I watch Winter Light is that I cannot expect for a film to fully meet with my own personal beliefs. In fact, I should celebrate the fact that films are made outside my own belief system. I want to see the viewpoints of others, and I shouldn’t knock a film for espousing different beliefs. The main questions are – what was this film trying to do, and did it succeed in how it attempted that? On a personal level, I’m most concerned with whether or not a film moved me emotionally.
As a piece of drama, Winter Light certainly succeeds. Its technical aspects are the level of quality you should expect from a Bergman film, which is to say they are as good as you will see. And the story is well-written and captivating. However, there is no denying that it is both heavy and dark. I love when Bergman plumbs these depths, though I understand that others may find it too heady. What cannot be denied is that this was such a personal work for Bergman. I think these were intellectual arguments he had fought in his own mind for years. Bergman’s own father was a pastor, and Bergman was certainly no stranger to religious discussion. While this results in a film that has deep conviction and a palpable earnestness, I don’t find the emotion in it that many of Bergman’s other films contain.
Amid all the bleakness, my second watch of the film did unearth faint slivers of light. The character of Marta, for instance, is so tender in the midst of this dark story. She asks for belief at the end. That is not a small occurrence. At the same time, the film ends with Tomas performing another service. Is he simply going through the motions, or has he turned some sort of corner? I’m not sure, but I do wonder why the film was titled Winter Light. There doesn’t seem to be much light in the story, but maybe it is there for us to seek.
At the end of the day, I must admit my own bent towards optimism, especially when it comes to my religious beliefs. As I said before, my view of this film shouldn’t hinge on whether or not it comes to the same conclusions about religion that I do. The film is seeking to wrestle with the fact that God is seemingly silent. It is seeking to wrestle with what we, as humans, are to do in light of that. It does all of that with great skill.
I cannot deny the power of this film, even if I wish it contained more emotion amid the doubting. It is dark and bleak, even by Bergman’s standards. That makes it difficult to watch at times. But for those who are willing to lay preconceived notions at the door and experience what this film has to offer, I think the rewards it contains are more than sufficient. It captures the earnestness and longing of someone experiencing deep doubts. And it does so with the technical mastery one would expect of a Bergman/Nykvist film.
While I do not think it is their best work, it is still a film of great power. Winter Light may not give us the answers we seek, but I think it has us asking the right questions.