Criterion // 1982 // 493 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Steve Evans (Retired) // January 17th, 2005
"Nothing separates me from all of you."
Despite a tragic first act, Fanny and Alexander may be the lone life-affirming film by legendary (and legendarily bleak) Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. This autobiographical tale set in 1907 follows a year in the lives of young Alexander and his sister Fanny, as they struggle with their father's death and mother's hasty remarriage to an authoritarian clergyman. Children abide and they endure, but little ones pay a great price for surviving tragedy. It is a psychological levy that often comes due years later when, as adults, they recall trauma in vague memories and suffer in their subconscious minds. Bergman's brilliance has always been his depiction of this inner turmoil in his characters (here, it is a pervasive melancholia that seeps through much of the film). Yet the picture is also tender and optimistic, with glimmers of hope and compassion for characters who fascinate us, especially those whose motives we may not fully understand.
So begins the rapid decline of a dying man whose beloved children, Fanny and Alexander, must come to terms with the dissolution of their family and scars of grief that only the living endure.
Alexander and his sister live a joyful life of imagination and unfettered happiness with their parents, who own a theater, and their large, boisterous extended family. The cruel vagaries of fate claim their father unexpectedly and drive their mother into the arms of a stern bishop. The clergyman hides his pathology and thinly-veiled aggression behind the cloth of the church. He is obsessed with religion, with strict adherence to ceremony and service and unquestioning subservience to the sanctity and teachings of the church...which is not the same as God, of course. The bishop cannot comprehend -- much less tolerate -- the feelings of others; a great tragedy that Alexander realizes, perhaps unconsciously, after he encounters ghostly images of his worried father. The children are miserable in their new life and long for escape. Even their mother reveals signs that she may have made a mistake. Soon, Fanny and Alexander make forays beyond the bishop's ascetic, suffocating home. Their explorations lead them to Isak, an aged, Jewish antiques dealer who brings magic and a palpable sense of wonder back into the children's lives.
Most of the film unfolds through the eyes of Alexander (Bertil Guve), a 10-year-old boy who often perceives the world in a surreal, dreamlike state. His late father visits in images. His ghostly apparition gazes lovingly upon the boy, as Alexander copes with his new life in a strict household. In heartbreaking scenes, Alexander struggles to protect and comfort his younger sister, Fanny (Pernilla Allwin). Yet by the denouement we glean the sense that happiness (or at least inner peace) may return.
The plot details scarcely plumb the depths of this engrossing film. Fanny and Alexander blooms on repeat viewings. Exquisitely designed, photographed and acted, Bergman's swansong film explores many of the themes that preoccupied the director over the course of his 50-year career: Love and life. The love of life. Death. Uninhibited sex. Failed dreams and the only thing more tragic: Living a life of illusions. Bergman, now 86, continued to work until 2003 making films for Swedish television, but Fanny and Alexander was billed as his final theatrical project.
Although Bergman has said the film contains a broad autobiographical quotient (his father was a severe disciplinarian and clergyman), the director deals too heavily in metaphor and allusion for us to take this tale literally as the story of his life. Instead, it helps to see the film as a coalescing of all the philosophical subjects that obsessed Bergman throughout his career (essentially Death, God and Sex, in that order). This makes the commentary track by film scholar Peter Cowie an invaluable part of Criterion's added-value content. Cowie, author of Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography, maintains a running commentary for the full three hours of the theatrical version. His insights are treasure. Cowie observes the significance of certain compositions. He explains the reasoning behind framing characters in a particular way in relation to each other. He comments on the use of music and sound, art design and obscure facts about the production. His knowledge of the film would seem to be absolute. It's an informative listening experience, sure to enhance an appreciation of the film on second viewing.
In this five-disc boxed set, Fanny and Alexander receives treatment royale by the cineastes at Criterion, who once again have produced an incredible package to celebrate an unforgettable film. At the risk of slipping into wide-eyed, blathering praise, Criterion is the best in the business. The package features two versions of the film, both presented in new, high-definition digital transfers. Both image and sound have been restored, while the subtitles have been redone for a richer translation into English. The video and audio transfers are beyond reproach. On decent equipment, both are on par with a theatrical viewing experience: Simply stunning.
The box contains the 181-minute theatrical version, which won the 1984 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Also, for the first time on DVD in the United States, the set includes Bergman's preferred cut -- the five-hour, 12-minute version originally broadcast on Swedish television. Bergman's own feature-length documentary The Making of Fanny and Alexander is the cornerstone supporting a handsome collection of supplemental material covering the director's methods and inspirations.
Never a company to skimp on extra content, Criterion includes a 60-minute interview with Bergman conducted in 1984, new interviews with the producer and principal cast members, theatrical trailers and his personal introductions to 11 of his films. Those are merely the highlights. Bergman connoisseurs can marinate for hours in this material, which is nothing short of comprehensive. This is an astounding package, meticulously assembled by Criterion for discriminating film lovers.
Cerebral, brooding, and often depressing, Bergman films can be a soul-chilling experience. This is not necessarily a bad thing, for Bergman's existential outlook compels us to think -- if we open our minds. It is also worth mentioning that the theatrical version of Fanny and Alexander will be enough to satisfy all but the most rabid Bergman fans. The indulgent five-hour television version often moves at a glacial pace. While this longer cut expands upon Bergman's themes and envelops us in rich character details, these benefits sometimes come at the expense of viewer interest. The director's cut might play better when screened over two evenings rather than a marathon viewing, where it becomes more of an endurance test.
Fanny and Alexander is a modern classic; the culmination of a celebrated director's brilliant career. Criterion, as we have come to expect, presents a package of unparalleled quality. Bergman fans will immediately recognize this definitive boxed set as an essential addition to their film libraries. The film is also an outstanding point of entry for movie lovers new to Bergman's work.
The picture is released to great applause. Criterion receives a standing ovation for setting the standard in impeccable DVD product.
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Scales of Justice
* Top 100 Discs: #26
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Swedish)
Running Time: 493 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary (theatrical version) by film scholar Peter Cowie
* The Making of Fanny and Alexander, a feature-length documentary by Bergman
* Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film, a 60-minute interview with the director made for Swedish television in 1984
* New interviews with the producer, production manager, art director, assistant director, and key actors
* Introductions by Bergman to 11 of his films
* Bergman theatrical trailers
* Costume sketches and video footage of the models for the film's sets
* Stills gallery
* A booklet with essays by novelist Rick Moody, documentarian and film historian Stig Bjorkman, and film scholar Paul Arthur