`Whispers' old secret rekindled

Bergman epic recalls movies are art, too

July 20, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

If you went to college 20 or 30 years ago and attended your local art house regularly, chances are you got sick of seeing the same old Bergmans, Kurosawas and Fellinis. But as Bob Dylan recently put it, "Things Have Changed." Generations have grown up thinking movies only got into gear with Star Wars. And anyone who's done some time at first-run theaters lately is apt to be nostalgic for those same old Bergmans, Kurosawas and Fellinis.

The summer cable series with the most unwieldy title on television - Sundance Channel Presents Classic World Cinema from the Criterion Collection - should do more than introduce students to the art house equivalent of golden oldies and allow repertory theater veterans to re-experience their youth. Every Saturday and Sunday at 9 p.m. (through August), this collaboration between Sundance Channel and the Criterion Collection, the top producer of aesthetically adventurous DVDs, reawakens our dulled senses to the possibilities of movies as an art form.

If you watch a film like Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1972), which airs tonight, you may find yourself reacting the way you sometimes do when you reread a great book - that you were so young when you saw it the first time that you didn't really take it all in. When I went to Cries and Whispers in college, it looked as if our most bravely pessimistic great director was beating a retreat into homilies like the meek inheriting the Earth. But now the movie plays like Bergman's most complete negation of all conventional wisdom - including the thoughts that faith will be rewarded, that healing comes from understanding and that love is easy for the loving.

Bergman depicts three sisters and a maid, at the turn of the last century, who wait in a country mansion for one of the sisters to die. Agnes (Harriet Andersson) has cancer. Her older sister, Karin (Ingrid Thulin), the smartest and severest of the group, and younger sister Maria (Liv Ullmann), an overripe coquette, have temporarily left their husbands - a diplomat and a businessman, respectively - to nurse her at their childhood home. The servant Anna (Kari Sylwan) has been with the family for years.

The action in the film couldn't be simpler. After a couple of harrowing seizures, Agnes dies, and the sisters unsuccessfully come to terms with her death. What provides the vise-like dramatic tension is a glittering, fractured structure. Bergman gives the characters dreams and flashbacks that show each confronting the one emotion they all share: overwhelming loneliness.

Ullmann's Maria epitomizes the pathos of superficial feeling, especially when she works what used to be called "feminine wiles" on Agnes' doctor. Thulin's Karin is a prisoner of intellect. Her ability to see through deceptions and illusions has obstructed her compassion.

In the most oddly rapturous first-person episode, Anna hears weeping in the night and runs to her mistress Agnes' bedroom, where she lies dead. Tears trickle down the corpse's face, and she begs her sisters to hold her. Karin reacts with disdain and Maria with fright. It's Anna who crawls into bed and rests Agnes on her thighs and her mountainous bared breast, in a breathtaking moment that evokes Madonna-like love, distorted sexuality and the basic animal urge to do something, anything, to comfort the dying - or here, the already-dead clinging to life.

When I first saw the film, I thought the image of Anna and Agnes was meant to glorify the meek of the Earth. But Bergman actually builds chagrin at Anna's simple faith into the movie's troubling erotic imagery and questioning framework. Anna is a woman who thanks God for taking her own dead child to his bosom. On re-viewing, it seems clear that to Bergman, Anna's faith is based on fantasy.

In another key scene, a minister comes to pray at Agnes' deathbed. He is full of sincerity and fervor. But his stern Calvinist creed becomes pathetic when he breaks down and tells the sisters that Agnes' religious beliefs were stronger and greater than his own. When the minister leaves, his loss of faith is what lingers, like a chill in the air. We're made sharply aware that, for all its period trappings, this is a vision of Western man - and woman - caught in a bleak post-Christian world.

Cries and Whispers unspools tonight at 9; tomorrow night's selection is Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc, also at 9.

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