Winter Light (1963)
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Gunnar Björnstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow and Gunnel Lindblom
By Joel Azose
I came to Winter Light through Paul Schrader’s 2017 movie First Reformed. First Reformed is a mystifying, spellbinding drama about a priest questioning his faith and his future as a result of counseling his suicidal parishioner. In article after article, it was compared – in structure, tone, and content – to Winter Light. Both boil down to the question: how can anyone hold hope for the future when they know the evil that exists in the world?
Winter Light is the second movie in Bergman’s “Silence of God” trilogy. It keeps in the somber, contemplative – sure, “existential” – mode of his early movies, focusing on spiritual and religious matters, while also pulling in a focus on a broken relationship (which he’ll later explore more in 1966’s psychedelic “Persona” and 1973’s “Scenes from a Marriage”, probably the two most famous movies of his directing career.)
And it’s true: on a surface level, First Reformed and Winter Light are identical. Winter Light centers on a priest, Tomas Ericsson, questioning his faith after a destabilizing encounter with Jonas Persson, a member of his church. Jonas’ wife is pregnant, and he is inconsolable, unsure of how he can bring a child into a world on the verge of a nuclear war. (In First Reformed, the issue plaguing his churchmember is climate change.) Like First Reformed, Winter Light also has a subplot about the priest keeping a woman who loves him at arm’s length (there, a fellow church employee; here, a schoolteacher).
The two films share a lot of thematic ground, too: faith and doubt, abandonment, and compassion reverberate in both. But these two movies are dramatically different in where they end up.
Priest Tomas is a cruel man, propelled forward by inertia in his role instead of genuine faith. Tomas relucantly admits that during his time as a pastor in wartime Lisbon, he was choosing ignorance, denying the reality of the evil around him, which prompts Märta, the schoolteacher, to encourage him to give up his role in the church. Later, when visited by a suicidal Persson, Tomas rants and raves, overtaken with guilt and self-doubt, unable to provide any meaningful comfort.
Tomas fancies himself as Jesus but knows that he would be an absent apostle.
Winter Light is brief and direct, full of the trademark Bergman-isms. (You won’t want for exquisitely-posed tableaux of two faces at angles against each other.) The cinematography is beautiful. Where many would have milked these scenes for melodrama, drenching them in strings, this movie pulls way back, employing nothing but diegetic organ and hymns for a “score”. The focus is truly on Tomas and his struggles. There’s not much in the way of plot, and it’s a bit slow to start, but ultimately worthwhile. – B
(Editor’s Note: Re-reviewed is a semi-regular Nada Mucho series in which we put classic films back under our cinematic microscope.)