In the second leg of Ingmar Bergman’s Faith Trilogy he gets right to the core of all matters of faith. He takes an up close and personal look at a man of the cloth named Tomas (Gunnar Bjorstrand), who shepherds a small congregation in a rural Swedish town. Such is the life of a clergyman, as with any life, where there are rough patches and emotional highs that rejuvenate you, but mostly rough patches. In fact, he is going through such a spell when the film begins. We survey his humble little chapel, and there are only a few scattered members of the community present. Half seem disinterested and Tomas himself speaks words of spiritual truth and yet it seems like he is only going through the motions. Does he actually believe these benedictions and words that he is proclaiming? I’m not sure he even knows for sure.
He’s been withstanding a winter period of his life personified by the icy weather engulfing his humble city on a hill. It reflects his own heart and mind which are going through a season of extraordinary indifference. On top of that, he’s fighting a bad case of the flu, and he is discontent in God’s silence. Where is God? Why is He not more present in his life? Why does he not more clearly reveal himself? Is there any power left in prayer? They are honest questions from a man struggling with faith, and it’s the epitome of an existential crisis. Bergman seems to be churning up all the thoughts creeping up in his own mind, and it’s very human — extremely honest.
Tomas has little in the realm of advice or comfort to offer his parishioners. For instance, when the depressed fishermen Jonas (Max Von Sydow) comes to the pastor after contemplating suicide, given the state of the world in the nuclear age, Tomas has little to say, because in order to encourage others you have to be encouraged. There’s nothing that can be done if the well you’re running on goes dry. You cannot sustain yourself that way. About all he is able to offer are a few downward glances, because there’s no conviction left in him.
On a personal note, Tomas lost his beloved wife and now he deflects the affections of local teacher Marta, who herself does not believe in God, but still she loves Tomas dearly. In a deeply heartfelt letter, she confesses her true feelings for him, and he responds with little acknowledgement. He cannot bear the townsfolk talking about them, and he still misses his wife dearly. It doesn’t help when he gets tragic news about Jonas.
Winter Light never reaches a clear conclusion, because life is hardly ever like that. In fact, there is an underlying irony that becomes apparent in this story. After Tomas lashes out against Marta and tells her to let him be, it becomes all too clear that Marta, though she does not believe in God, is in a sense, living a better life. They are both lost in the throes of winter still, but she at least has the capacity for love and vulnerability. Tomas’s apathy seems to be a far greater plight, since he feels trapped in a labyrinth of idiotic trivialities, as he puts it.
The sexton Algot brings up an interesting point about the suffering of Christ. His physical suffering must have been immense, but how much greater must he have suffered when everyone deserted him. The disciples didn’t understand a thing he said, Peter denied him, everyone else deserted him, and he was even forsaken by God. It suggests the importance of our interactions with one another. In the days of our lives it becomes so easy to continue constantly in the endless cycle of life. Never getting outside of it and relating to our fellow man. Falling into apathy and indifference, which is especially easy when tough times hit.
Bergman does it again, delivering a film full of philosophical depth and questions that force the viewer to ruminate over their own condition, whatever their background or beliefs might be. Sven Nykvist’s photography is beautifully austere once more, and it adds a certain visual depth to the director’s trilogy. It’s stark, pure, and piercing with gorgeous shades of black and white.