"A Haunting and Shattering Film Experience"
In December 1972, Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman unleashed his latest film, Viskningar och rop on American audiences. Translated Cries and Whispers, the film, starring several of Bergman's stock company of actors and shot by longtime collaborator Sven Nykvist, became the legendary director's greatest American success. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Cries and Whispers makes its DVD debut as part of the esteemed Criterion Collection.
Facts of the Case
On the eve of the twentieth century, Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin) gather at their childhood home, a palatial country manor, to be with their sister Agnes (Harriet Andersson) as she succumbs to cancer. But both sisters are too consumed with their own selves to minister to Agnes's pain. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Maria is gripped with remorse over an illicit affair with Agnes's doctor, and her husband's subsequent suicide attempt. Karin, uncertain of her husband's fidelity, remembers a desperate act of self-mutilation. Agnes's devoted maid Anna (Kari Sylwan), who lost her young daughter, is the only one who is truly willing to comfort Agnes. For her part, Agnes is a woman of faith, unconsumed with the petty jealousies of her sisters. As Agnes's suffering becomes more horrific, the women are forced to examine their relationships, despite the painful truths they must uncover.
The extent of my experience with foreign films is very limited. Like many movie buffs, I can handle some of the more mainstream fare. I pride myself on having a "worldly" DVD collection, which includes Life Is Beautiful and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I enjoyed Il Postino when it ran in theaters a couple of years back. But in general, I avoid foreign films at all costs. It's not that I don't enjoy them necessarily; it's that I fear them. I fear the language barrier. I fear not understanding what the heck is going on. I fear that I'll betray my lack of formal film education and be exposed for the fraud that I am. So it was with some apprehension that I accepted the assignment to review Cries and Whispers. I have to admit that, indeed, much of this film went way over my head. But that which didn't will be in my head for a long time.
Cries and Whispers is a beautifully shot film. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist won an Academy Award for his work, truly making the house and its shadows another character in the film. His exterior photography is gorgeous, documenting the passing of time with beautiful sunrises. His interiors are punctuated with stark close-ups of the characters and quick focus shifts. The dreamlike state of the flashbacks, and especially the haunting final sequence are worth viewing for their aesthetic quality alone. The recent horror film The Others owes much in to Cries and Whispers in this area.
The story that Bergman has crafted is one worth telling. It painfully examines the reality of sibling rivalry, reminding us that if left unchecked, it can consume our ability to love. Karin and Maria are so caught up in their disdain for each other that they are unable to empathize with Agnes. Also at the heart of the film is the relationship between Anna and Agnes, who are closer to each other than any of the sisters will ever be. Since Anna has experienced the pain of losing her own child, her spring of empathy is running over. But at the same time, Anna is heartbreakingly shut out of the sisters' world, consigned to her place as a servant. She's the only one who truly loves Agnes, in fact even mothers her, and yet is treated by Karin and Maria like a stranger.
Bergman is also unafraid to show the total agony of Agnes's suffering. An early shot in the film chronicles Agnes waking from peaceful slumber to the reality of her predicament. The shot is merely a close-up of her face, but it lasts an uncomfortable two minutes. As Agnes draws closer to death, she is in so much pain that she literally screams out for help again and again. It makes the sisters' lack of action even more painful to the viewer.
The performances by these Swedish actresses are astonishing. Liv Ullmann draws the eye as the beautiful Maria, sensual but indifferent. Ingrid Thulin as Karin is a portrait of hatred and self-pity. Kari Sylwan plays Anna, truly the heart of the film. The performance that really haunted me was that of Harriet Andersson as the dying woman, Agnes, who may actually be more alive than either of her petty sisters.
Cries and Whispers is presented in its original aspect ratio, an anamorphically enhanced 1.66:1. The print is very clean and in surprisingly good shape for a film that is almost thirty years old. Colors are strong and vibrant when necessary, with no edge enhancement visible. Criterion created a new transfer for this release and it shows.
There are several audio options for Cries and Whispers, all presented mono. The original audio track in Swedish is available with or without English subtitles. The Swedish audio experience was new to me, but the track itself is very clean with little distortion. Any mono track isn't going to wow your system, but this was an adequate sound experience. Also available is an English dubbed track. I sampled this track after I finished the other one, and found it to be of equal quality. I usually prefer subtitles to dubbing, though the dub job here is actually pretty impressive.
The only supplement on this disc is an interview with Bergman, but at least it's an impressive one. "Ingmar Bergman; Reflections on Life, Death, and Love with Erland Josephson" is a 52-minute production by TV4 International Sweden. Bergman is interviewed alongside his lifelong friend and collaborator, Josephson (who plays Agnes's doctor in Cries and Whispers) by journalist Malou von Sivers. The interview is very in depth about Bergman's life and career, though not specific to Cries and Whispers. If you want to know more about this production, you'll have to look elsewhere. The interview is presented full frame. Also, the audio on this supplement was at times distorted on my system. Bergman fans should be very pleased with this addition to the disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Cries and Whispers suffers from many of the usual foreign film clichés. At times the film can be slow, and the situations a little overdramatic. The use of the color red is obviously symbolic of something, though I could never put my finger on exactly what it is (the liner notes said "the interior of the soul"). The major problem I had with the film is that so much of what is motivating these women is left unexplained. I think American movies try a little harder to establish why a character acts the way he or she does. Despite the flashbacks, I felt as if I had somehow missed the first twenty minutes of this film, or as if it was a sequel somehow to another story. Repeat viewings might help lift some of this fog.
I'm not sure how much of Cries and Whispers I actually understood, but I must say that the film left me strangely intrigued. Though it was the first film by Bergman I've ever seen, it won't be the last. If you enjoy Bergman, or foreign films, you'll be pleased with Criterion's treatment of this title. If you haven't seen any of his films, give this a rent if you want something a little meatier than the usual summer fare.
Not guilty! However, I decree that this disc should be sold along with a copy of "The Idiot's Guide to Bergman" for those of us who "just don't get it."
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Scales of Justice
• "Ingmar Bergman; Reflections on Life, Death, and Love with Erland Josephson"
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