There are times I almost forget why I am so devoted to film, when everything I seem to watch is medriocre, unremarkable or forgettable. Then, there are times this like weekend where I was privileged enough to see two masterpieces (and I don’t throw that term around loosely),and another great film that proves hope for modern cinema (2 Days in Paris). The masterpieces in question are Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, and De Sica’s Umberto D Both are drastically different in tone, and message, sharing very little in common aside from being great works of art.
Fanny and Alexander is a time consuming, albeit rewarding and unique cinematic experience. There is not a superfluous moment in the 312 minute running time, and Bergman is able to perfectly weave a fantastic world of dreams and nightmares seen through the eyes of a child. Although I’ve enjoyed the very small portion I’ve seen of Bergman’s filmography (The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and the Virgin Spring are the others), they were far more overt in their questioning of life, death, relationships, and anything else that troubled Bergman. Perhaps in the allowance of such a long running time, and wisdom gained with age, Bergman weaves all these questions and ideas about the world through the experiences and perceptions of his characters, rather than having them asked more directly, or confronted head on as they were in his earlier films. The imagery though, is still there. Images that remind us of those old tapestries from the middle ages, or perhaps engravings in a church of death walking among humans as if he were one of us. Bergman now filters these images through Alexander and his uniquely imaginative perception of the world. He sees ghosts, and spirits…, and is able to fabricate elaborate and detailed stories in a blink of an eye.
The imagery of this film is fantastic, and although I love the starkness of Bergman’s black and white features, they cannot compare to his use of colour in Fanny and Alexander. The richness of the colour pallette in the early chapters represents the richness of life, and happiness. The sense of familial happiness is so warm, and it’s reflected in the rich reds used to adorn their comfortable home. The screen is crowded with relics and flowers, and there is a sense of a thriving life in the home. Once though, we enter the home of the Bishop, the warmth has dissapeared entirely. The colours become cold, and grey. Even the bishop’s face seems to lack blood as he stared down with menace at the children. It’s a home of death, and the strictness and irrationality of the environment bears down on Alexander, and his mother… two creative souls who are being robbed of all expression, and of warmth. Despite what the Bishop predicts, his house (it cannot be called a home) does not transform his wife and children, rather it makes them stronger and more rebellious. The third home we encounter is Isak Jacobi’s, the children’s saviour and close friend of the Ekdahl family. Much like their home it is cluttered, although to almost absurd degrees. There is a sense of dusty history, ancestry presented in this home, although it is devoid of human life. It’s more like a secret hiding place than a home, that shelters many secrets about the spiritual and real world. It is here that Alexander converses with his dead father, and is confronted with God… although not in the way one would think.
Thanks to the length of the film, Bergman is able to paint all his characters as real people. They all have their moments, and the actors perform every scene to such perfection that I almost feel as though I hadn’t truly scene a good performance before now. From my perspective, the most interesting character is Bishop Edvard Vergerus played by Jan Malmsjö. I want to call him a villain, because he does such inconceivably terrible things to the children and his wife, his selfishness is almost inconceivable, and he truly believes to have done nothing wrong. Yet, I can’t bring myself to do it. Outside of fiction, I can’t think of people on terms like villain or hero, and he seems to real that I can’t categorize him. He does terrible things, and is the image of hypocracy, not only as a reprentive of the clergy, but dare I say of the pompous self righteousness some men (some women as well, as his sister is exemplifies, although the role of the father tends to be more man specific) in view of their control over family, wife and children. His appearance contrasts wonderfully with this coldness, because he has an open, and handsome face as one of the characters suggest. He evokes a sense of discomfort, although you look into his eyes and there isn’t cruelty, but something akin to compassion. It’s almost appropriate that in the last scene we see him alive, he is blinded and his eyes are wild and mad. They are the links that made him human, if only for an instant. His relationship with his new family really transforms him, and it shows on his face. For the first time in his life he’s presented with people who won’t obey him, and outright dislike him. It bothers him intensely, and really eats away at him inside. His downfall, is probably the most complex and emotional of the film, and while he is clearly the “enemy” Bergman allows him the most sympathy of all his characters. His final moments are pathetic, and frightening… along with him, we are reminded that he isn’t God, but a brittle human being, a mass of flesh that can be easily destroyed.
I could easily go on talking and writing abuot Fanny and Alexander, but I don’t think I would ever finish, or do the film justice. It’s one of those truly rare experiences that has to be seen to believe.
UMBERTO D and 2 Days in Paris will come in another post or two. I don’t want to scare people away with enormous rants.