Karin (Harriet Andersson) is a wife, daughter and sister. She suffers from an incurable mental illness. Karin is wife to her brother Minus (Lars Passgard), daughter to her husband Martin (Max Von Sydow), and sister to her father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand). This is a psychological time-bomb of a family unit. “Through a Glass Darkly” takes place during a brief period of lucidity for Karin, during which she awaits the appearance of God. When he appears in the guise of a spider, she realize that reality is a web in which she is trapped. In the end, she chooses madness over the roles she is expected to play in the real world. The first film of Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith is a reduction of Chekhov’s The Seagull, with Karin not only playing Nina, but representing the remaining female roles as well. All except for Arkadina, because there is no mother is this story. Husband Martin plays Medvedenko to Karin’s Masha, and father David is something of a Trigorin, despite the temporary lack of a sexual partner. When Minus stages his Strindbergian play-within-a-play, it is his father’s approval that he seeks. A significant difference between The Seagull and Through a Glass Darkly is that Bergman emulates Strindberg’s symbolic chamber dramas, while Chekhov deplores and satirizes them.
The second film of the trilogy begins with 13 minutes of church ritual, after which we discover that Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Bjornstrand) doesn’t believe in any of it. As a result, he is at a loss for words when parishioner Jonas Persson (Max Von Sydow) comes to him with an anxiety crises concerning China’s capacity for nuclear weapons and their willingness to use them. The Pastor blames his inability to bring solace to the suffering man on the silence of God. When the Pastor finally rids himself of all belief in God, he feels an euphoric freedom and a sudden ability to communicate, but his new materialistic outlook on the lack of meaning in life leads Persson to suicide. Meanwhile we have a subplot concerning the schoolteacher Marta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin), the Pastor’s rejected lover who has been raised raised in a happy home outside the church, who has decided to live her life for this man who does not want her, as he prefers the cold, loveless life that has been lot since the death of his wife. “Winter Light” is made up of a very few scenes on a single day, most of them inside the church. Its primary attribute is the wealth of close-ups made of the Parson’s hypocritical, egotistical face. For an hour and twenty minutes, we can ponder on what an absolute louse he is.
Where “Winter Light” is neither deep nor intricate, “The Silence” is ultimately incomprehensible. The surface is readily understood. A frustrated sensualist is nearing the end of her vacation with her freaky son and dying sister. The son roams the hotel and some of its guest rooms, while the mother seeks out sexual encounters both in the hotel and in the city. The sister masturbates alone while suffering fears of abandonment and suffocation. The last film in the trilogy is always fascinating to watch, but can be interpreted in so many ways that nothing is ever certain. Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) handles her child with such erotic possessiveness that one almost expects her to shove him right up inside herself. Ester (Ingrid Thulin) gets so upset with Anna’s promiscuity that we wonder if they have been lovers. And Anna is so hateful toward Ester that we wonder what happened to cause the rupture between them. And then there is the non-language that only the Anna’s son seems to understand. And the city. Is it a war zone or the dreamscape of a traumatized child? Is the entire story imagined by the child Johan, played by Jorgen Lindstrom, who will play a nearly identical role three years later in Bergman’s Persona, as he stares through the windows of a train? Or is he a true eyewitness to the slow death of his aunt, who leaves him a letter filled with foreign words of a pretend language as her parting gift?
I don’t think I will ever know; nor do I think it important. For me, at least, these movies are valuable primarily for the aesthetic pleasures they afford the viewer, not for their philosophical, psychological, or theological ideas. I feel no richer in those departments for watching these films. In fact, these films leave me with virtually nothing except the memory of the pleasure of having enjoyed them. The faces, the way people move, the lighting, the framing, the locations, but most of all the faces. But for the record, I believe the general idea behind the trilogy is to examine three kinds of human disorders. “Through a Glass Darkly” penetrates the anguish of mental disease, “Winter Light” penetrates the anguish of spiritual disease, and “The Silence” penetrates the anguish of physical disease. As for the silence of God, I don’t buy it, because I suspect Bergman spent little time listening for God’s voice in the first place. But he has spent a lot of time puzzling over the idea of God. His Trilogy of Faith may be a farewell to such pre-occupations.