Ingmar Bergman is the director that you love to hate. On the surface, he embodies “art” film-making, and pretentiousness. Black and white, subtitled, small cast, long silences, not to mention film titles taken from Bible verses. Add a healthy dose of misanthropy, and you’ve got some serious elitist art. The thing that’s easy to miss is that the man tells a great story.
Through a Glass Darkly is a 1961 film by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. It follows one family for 24 hours as they vacation on a small island. That’s it. How can a movie with such a simple set up be so simultaneously entertaining and deep? The answer lies in the details and subtlety, and in the way all of the film’s contributors (actors, director, crew) come together in perfect harmony to deliver a seriously powerful film.
Ingmar Bergman is the director that you love to hate. On the surface, he embodies “art” film-making, and pretentiousness. Black and white, subtitled, small cast, long silences, not to mention film titles taken from Bible verses. Add a healthy dose of misanthropy, and you’ve got some serious elitist art. The thing that’s easy to miss is that the man tells a great story, and no matter how much he gets spoofed (MST3K, SCTV, Family Guy, Field of Dreams) his movies still hold up.
In this, his first installment in a trilogy dealing with spirituality, we follow Karin (Harriet Andersson) as she has recently been released from an asylum where she received treatment for schizophrenia. Her husband (Max von Sydow) has joined her dad (Gunnar Bjornstrand) and brother (Lars Passgard) for a get-away vacation on a small island just off the coast. Karin’s family thinks that a little time away from the city will do her some good and help her recovery.
What follows is a descent into a sea of passive aggression.
Because the family is alone on the island, it’s not long before they start bickering and airing out the dirty laundry. Karin’s father is a hack writer that keeps his distance from his family, but has nothing to show for it. Karin’s husband can’t stand her dad’s psychological hold on his daughter, and her brother is caught in the middle and unprepared to deal with his sister’s disease. As tensions increase, Karin’s mental state starts to deteriorate, and the family must try to come to an understanding and deal with her condition.
The fact that they are on the island alone starts to become important as we see the family members, each in their own way, slowly lose touch with reality. This is not done with hypnotic dream sequences or CG fighting robots, but simply stellar acting. Over the course of 24 hours, Karin and each member of her family are permanently changed in some way.
Even as I describe the story, the movie sounds like a Lars von Trier exercise in depression, but it really isn’t. Somehow Bergman follows the family through all of their ups and downs without judging anyone, leaving room for the viewer to interpret things as they will. The sparse atmosphere and focus on character has the effect of putting every little action under a microscope, and somehow makes every action or inaction infinitely complex. I’ve watched many Bergman films, and each time I’m impressed by how the man can make any situation interesting. He kept a small group of regular actors, and as a result was able to get some truly unique and amazing performances. Nowhere is this more evident than in Harriet Andersson’s portrayal of Karin and her descent into madness.
This is one of those movies that just needs to be seen to be believed. My description can’t do it justice, as even I don’t know how and why it works so well. It’s just one that’s always good to come back to when I need some inspiration; that’s the sign of a seriously great film. Seriously, fear not the Swedish Master!