Criterion // 1982 // 312 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 21st, 2011
The legendary director's warmest and most autobiographical film.
"Therefore let us be happy while we are happy. Let us be kind, generous, affectionate and good. It is necessary and not at all shameful to take pleasure in the little world."
Our story begins with a sprawling introduction to the Ekdahl family. The matriarch is Helena Ekdahl (Gunn Wallgren), a kind-hearted woman who observes her family with understanding and concern. All three of her sons have families of their own: the jovial Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle, Smiles of a Summer Night) is a serial philanderer who is married to the impossibly understanding Alma (Mona Malm, The Seventh Seal), Carl (Borje Ahlstedt, Saraband) is a frustrated, self-loathing man married to the heartbroken Lydia (Christina Schollin, Song of Norway) and Oscar (Allan Edwall, The Virgin Spring) is a kind-hearted man married to the similarly good-natured Emelie (Ewa Froling, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).
Much of the story centers around Oscar and Emilie's young children, Alexander (Bertil Guve) and Fanny (Pernilla Alwen). When Oscar suddenly passes away, Emilie finds herself seeking comfort in the arms of Bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo, Scenes From a Marriage). She marries him, but quickly begins to regret her decision when she discovers that the bishop is a cruel, domineering man who is quickly turning the lives of Fanny, Alexander and Emilie into a living hell. Is there any hope for escape?
Throughout his entire career, Ingmar Bergman wrestled with life's biggest questions: God, death and sex (the last one is perhaps less weighty than the other two, but no less complex). He is regarded by many as an anguished, tormented filmmaker, yet he addressed his own conflicts with a steady, level-headed honesty, thoughtfulness and even humor. In Fanny and Alexander (which Bergman initially intended to be his final film, though he would eventually return to work), the director finally seems to be at peace. We revisit many of Bergman's pet themes, but this time the director is merely making wise observations rather than struggling to come to conclusions. He has resolved these matters, and now it is time to look back and take inventory of his life. The film is a swan song for the cinematic world he created; a film that seems to have been produced from burning memories and feelings (much like Fellini's final work, Amarcord).
At various points during Fanny and Alexander, we are reminded of other moments in Bergman films. The tributes aren't gratingly obvious recalls (we're not dealing with Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back here) but rather gentle allusions, as assorted scenes are haunted by the ghosts of The Seventh Seal, Smiles of a Summer Night, Cries and Whispers and so on. On one level, the film offers a recreation of Bergman's memories, while on another level it represents a recreation of his own mind. As such, the film itself is also haunted, as Alexander (the most innocent and impressionable of the many Bergman surrogates in the film -- he claims that all of the male characters contain something of himself) sees assorted spectres appear at various points in time.
The dual-layered approach to the film is endlessly fascinating, arguably never moreso than during the lengthy stretch of the film which takes place within the bishop's home. To those who know even a little about Bergman, it will be immediately obvious that the bishop represents the church's role in his own upbringing -- a strict, unrelenting force that left him with a lifetime of spiritual torment and resentment (a fact which is acknowledged in the bishop's final scene). However, the bishop also reflects Bergman's own darkest tendencies and occasionally dictatorial methods, and participates in scenes which feel as much like blunt confessions as painful experiences.
In its quest to incorporate many aspects of Bergman's persona as a director, the film runs hot and cold even as the characters remain consistently themselves. The opening and closing passages of the film are perhaps the warmest Bergman has ever directed. Watching the joyous interaction of the first hour makes you feel as if you've been invited to the world's best family reunion. Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist bathe these scenes in a golden glow; happy memories forever sealed in amber. When the film moves to the bishop's house, Bergman drains the film of color and presents a film which seems like it might just turn black-and-white at any moment. Suddenly, Emilie and her children find themselves facing a much starker reality. Finally, the interlude with the wise Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson, Cries and Whispers), is loaded with surreal, theatrical images and sports a red haze which almost makes it seem like some kind of netherworld (a notion enhanced by the appearance of the film's most ominous supernatural figure).
The cast is largely comprised of Bergman veterans, as the director lovingly revisits the weathered faces we've seen so often throughout his work. In addition to the aforementioned players, there are also small but crucial roles for Harriet Andersson (Sawdust and Tinsel) as a timidly sympathetic servant in the bishop's house and the great Gunnar Bjornstrand (Winter Light) as the leader of a local theatre troupe. The most memorable performance comes from Malmsjo as the fearsome bishop, but the entire cast is superb. Everyone brings their A-game to the material, and in the extended television version of the film (which is by far the superior version), nearly every actor is given at least one opportunity to shine.
Fanny and Alexander: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray) offers a splendid 1080p/1.66:1 transfer. Having previously seen the film via Criterion's 5-disc DVD release, I can assure you that the level of detail has been boosted considerably. The image is very nearly pristine, only a few moments of excessive noise and a handful of minor scratches and flecks hamper it on fleeting occasions. Colors are warm and robust when Bergman requires them to be while blacks are impressively deep. Considering the entire 320-minute television version of the film has been crammed onto a single disc, I'm quite impressed with how sharp the film looks. The DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio track is also quite strong, though this is largely a quiet, dialogue-driven film. Sound design is rather minimal throughout, and music is used very sparingly throughout the film (however, the music has a considerable impact when it does appear, as is often the case in Bergman films). Some of the supernatural sequences do manage to stir up some appropriately creepy creaks and groans.
The supplemental package from the DVD release is reprised here, and there's a lot of high-quality stuff to dig through. Disc Two of the collection contains the 188-minute theatrical version of the film, and while I find this edit simply removes too much rich material for my tastes, it is blessed with a fantastic audio commentary courtesy of Bergman scholar Peter Cowie (who never slips into lengthy dead spots or simply resorts to describing the action on-screen). Watching the commentary is the perfect way to experience the theatrical version, as you can see the differences between the two films while also learning an enormous amount of valuable information about the production. Disc three boasts the feature-length documentary "The Making of Fanny and Alexander" (110 minutes), which is directed by Bergman himself. As such, it's a considerably more personal, in-depth look at the film's creation than the standard making-of doc. You also get the more recent documentary "A Bergman Tapestry" (40 minutes) featuring interviews with assorted cast and crew members, the hour-long special "Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film" (originally broadcast on Swedish television in 1984), a stills gallery, a costume gallery, some set models and a booklet containing essays by Stig Bjorkman, Rick Moody, and Paul Arthur.
Fanny and Alexander is one of Ingmar Bergman's finest films, which makes it one of the finest films made by anyone. Criterion's lavish release gives this melancholy masterwork the royal treatment; it's an essential addition to any movie lover's collection.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Swedish)
Running Time: 312 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Version
* Bonus Footage