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Sunday, 14 September 2008

Cries and Whispers (1972)

Agnes is a dying woman. It won't be long before cancer takes her life, especially given that this is Sweden in the late 19th century. She's in pain and in need, to a frightening degree, though there are certainly good spells and bad spells. Harriet Andersson's hoarse breathing and raspy cries during those bad spells are truly haunting, highlighting very well indeed just how terrible a disease it is. You'd expect that having her sisters there to help her through it would be a comfort, but this is an Ingmar Bergman film and it's not going to be that straightforward.

Anna is there for her in the worst times, when she transforms, through Andersson's powerful performance and without any need for CGI, into a screaming ball of pain. In these moments they turn away, in revulsion at the transformation and through their own failings and fears. They simply can't leave who they are behind in order to do what they should, as human beings and as sisters. On the other hand, Anna, a mere maid, is full of the sort of selfless spirit that can give. Anna is played by Kari Sylwan, seemingly a novice in such company, but apparently comfortable in it. The scenes with the four together are very telling. As two characters come forward, the third holds back in deference. As two recoil, the third rushes forward. She's the one who really cares.

Anna is there for her in the worst times, when she transforms, through Andersson's powerful performance and without any need for CGI, into a screaming ball of pain. In these moments they turn away, in revulsion at the transformation and through their own failings and fears. They simply can't leave who they are behind in order to do what they should, as human beings and as sisters. On the other hand, Anna, a mere maid, is full of the sort of selfless spirit that can give. The scenes with the four together are very telling. As two come forward, the third holds back in deference. As two recoil, the third rushes forward. She's the one who really cares.

It's a simple story in itself, so simple that it can't really be called a plot. As with many of Bergman's films, it has to do with putting characters into a situation and letting them explore emotional depth. What I'm finding is that usually he stuns me in the process, like with The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring and Smiles of a Summer Night, but sometimes he leaves me wondering just what he was intending, like with The Silence, which while it was obviously powerful filmmaking, I just didn't get.

This one falls in between because I get much of it but perhaps not all. Maybe I'm still too rooted in convention to appreciate something this pure, because while I'm sure I'm missing intentions and meanings in some scenes, perhaps I'm still looking for something that shouldn't even be here. It's certainly a powerful and meaningful piece of work, very cleverly done and with some great performances. As with other Bergman films, I'm looking at this one not just as a film that I'm watching now but as a film I'll watch again in the future with the expectation that I'll see more than I did this time.

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