You'd have to be either intensely stupid or immensely ambitous to decide on impulse to rent and watch 5 hours of Ingmar Bergman, having never seen a Bergman film before in your life. But it looks like it's going to rain all weekend. Work has drained you of the desire to worship at the Turnaround with Manuel Bundy at Rising Sun, or check out Senor Cesar at Galatos, or Isaac and Kelly K blowing at Khuja. (Hell, even Scribes of Ra and the united forces of Wellington and Auckland Batucada
couldn't get me out last Saturday night. I'm such a slacker). So. You rent Fanny and Alexander
, and get blown away.
F&A is a moving and expansive film. Although set almost exclusively within the confines of two bourgeois families in Sweden in the early 20th Century, F&A is impressive in its sweep, conflating issues of power in marriage, family politics, faith, the nature of theatre, death, childhood and immorality into an epic that drew me in completely. Who cares that it takes 5 hours and two DVDs to get there?
Bergman's experience in live theatre is evdient throughout in the timing and rhythm of the scenes, the balance of dialogue, and the deliberate placement (blocking?) of actors within the camera frame. This film contains depiction of some of the most complex emotion I've ever seen in cinema. (I would have to see some more of his films to confirm whether this is a Bergman trademark). Perhaps the best example is the laughable to-ing and fro-ing between the childrens' uncle Carl and Helena, his wife from Munich. Their interactions swing within the space of seconds from physical revulsion to pathetic mutual fawning. Utterly extraordinary to watch two actors grapple with this incredibly difficult material, and make it convincing.
The children's stepfather, the austere protestant Bishop Vergerus, dominates the action of the second half of the film. What motivates him to treat his new wife and stepchildren with such chilling and cruel indifference? Is it a firm conviction in the righteousness of his particular interpretation of Christianity? Does Vergerus truly act out of "love", as he tells Alexander as he beats him and locks him in the attic? Is it a desire for power and order in his household? Is it some kind of sadistic psychosis? Is he genuinely in love with Emilie? I'm not sure if any of this is truly elaborated, nevertheless the portrayal of the Bishop by Jan Malmsjö
Special mention must be made of the kids playing the titular roles of Fanny and Alexander. The character of Fanny remains something of a hollow shell, since most of the key action is viewed from Alexander's perspective (Alexander operates in this film as an analog for Bergman himself.) But her apparent strength and impassivity in the face of death, imprisonment and abuse provides a foil to the often emotional Alexander. Here's a ten year old who goes to pieces as he approaches his father on his deathbed, speaks to ghosts (no it's not a European T6S
) and is beaten by his stepfather for failing to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
Apparently there's a 5 disc F&A box set
coming out in November, including the original cinematic release, the 5 hour edited-for-Swedish-TV version and the making-of doco Dokument Fanny och Alexander. Yoiks. I may have to clear the decks on my credit card.
I think I'll have to rent some more Bergman sometime, and hope that it lives up to my assessment of F&A....