INGMAR BERGMAN’s film Cries and Whispers (Cert. 15) is being given a 50th-anniversary cinema release. The film revisits many of the director’s preoccupations: faith, humanity’s struggles to connect with one another, loneliness, and suffering.
Agnes (Harriet Andersson) listens in bed to various highly ornate clocks striking four, but never together. One has even stopped functioning completely. It is metaphorically representative, in the face of ultimate extinction, of our vain efforts to create perfection, be in harmony with one another. Furthermore, Agnes is dying. The film’s fin de siècle setting allows us to note a bygone era, in which traditional religious belief has begun its ongoing decline.
Because of her condition, the other two sisters, Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann), come to join Anna (Kari Sylwan), the maid, who lovingly nurses her sick employer. The siblings are near-strangers to one another. Flashbacks inform us of Agnes’s feelings of resentment over their mother’s preference for Anna. She, in turn, abhors being touched by the others. Maria is shallow. Referring, perhaps, to Through a Glass Darkly, Bergman’s 1961 film, a former lover places her before a mirror. He demonstrates how the woman’s looks have coarsened, reflecting a complacent, indifferent, and indolent nature.
As with Chekhov’s Three Sisters, bubbling beneath the surface are painful memories and hopeless yearnings. Most characters are utterly self-absorbed. It rests on Anna to provide a wider view of life. She prays, by an empty cot, for her daughter who died. She it is who consoles Agnes in her hours of need, cradling her, pietà-style, against her bosom. Love, for her, is about touch and feelings. With Bergman, God, albeit an impassive figure, is never far from his thoughts. Much dialogue is addressed straight to camera, as if a divine proclamation. In an extended close-up, the prayers of the Revd Isak (Anders Ek) over Agnes’s corpse deteriorate into plea-bargaining that the living may be spared final oblivion. It reminds one of the director’s despairing priest in Winter Light (1963), but infused this time with emotions where passion is synonymous with suffering.
The cinematographer Sven Nykvist immerses the whole film in red. Bergman regarded this as the colour of the soul. Unlike Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy, in which red symbolises fraternity, the sisters have closed down such feelings for one another. The heavy-handed self-abasement that the Lutheranism of Bergman’s upbringing wrought is apparent in his characters who have chosen various kinds of “death” rather than God’s offer of life. The pain-racked Agnes is an exception.
Interestingly, the director frequently returned to Diary of a Country Priest (book and film) as a source of inspiration. The final words of both are “All is grace.” In Cries and Whispers, Agnes likewise keeps a diary. It includes this entry: “I believe I have received the best gift anyone could have in this life. The gift has many names: affinity . . . fellowship, human contact, affection. I believe this is what is called grace.”
In an ending reminiscent of Dreyer’s Ordet, Bergman throws a lifeline of resurrection to his entombed souls, even if sceptical that they will take hold of it.