SPOILER ALERT: The closing scene of this film was incredibly moving for me. I will discuss it in great detail here. While that discussion may not completely spoil the experience of this film, I certainly encourage you to watch the film before reading this review. Then, once you've seen it, return and join in the discussion.
There are some times where you can instantly tell that a film will be a favorite the moment you finish watching it. I experienced this recently upon watching Ingmar Bergman's classic Through a Glass Darkly - the first of his Faith Trilogy. It was especially interesting because I very nearly felt the complete opposite. Had the film chosen to end with an earlier (and more famous) scene rather than its actual ending, I would not have found it to be such an incredible achievement. However, this film - maybe more than any other for me - ends on the absolutely perfect note.
But I'm getting way ahead of myself here. First, a note about the film's plot.
This film focuses mainly on one character - Karin (Harriet Andersson) - and how she interacts with her family during a vacation on the island of Faro. Along with her are her younger brother, Fredrik, known as Minus (Lars Passgard), her physician husband, Martin (Max von Sydow), and her father, David (Gunnar Bjorstrand), who is a writer putting the finishing touches on his novel.
After arriving on the island, David confides in Martin regarding Karin's health. It is clear that she has some kind of mental disorder (we later learn that it is schizophrenia), and that it is deemed incurable.
Separately, Minus tells Karin that he has high hopes for his father's new novel. He wants it to succeed, but more than that, he hopes it will allow he and his father to grow closer. He desperately wants to communicate with his father in a real way. He also admonishes Karin to wear less revealing clothes and to cease the intimate attention she shows him.
At all times in this film, the powerful storyline is given further impact by the incredible cinematography of frequent Bergman collaborator, Sven Nykvist. He is famous for his use of contrast and lighting in such monumental films as Persona, Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander. Here, he lights the faces of the characters separately, to provide even more nuance to the experience. Quite literally, themes of lightness and darkness are explored here with incredible acuity. For more exploration of Nykvist's work on the film, I would direct you to Roger Ebert's review of Through a Glass Darkly for his Great Movies series.
While Bergman and Nykvist are clearly both at the top of their game, the film also owes a great deal of thanks to its incredible cast. Max von Sydow is a legend, as is Gunnar Bjornstrand. Both are fantastic here, but it is Harriett Andersson as Karin that gives the film's best performance. She evokes the character's descent in such striking fashion. But she never lets the performance stray into a campy or unhinged realm. Her performance is the heart of the story, and it is a testament to her work that the film succeeds as it does.
Due to my love of writing, I'm often drawn to films that include a character or subplot where writing is a key component. Here, I certainly resonated with the character of David. He is consumed with his writing projects. At the moment, his focus is his nearly-completed novel. He has seemingly neglected his family for his own writing pursuits, and it is clear that the vacation was meant as way for everyone to reconnect. Instead, David confesses during dinner that night that he will once again be travelling after their island vacation ends despite the fact that he had promised his children not to travel as much. David tries to lighten the mood by giving out presents, but it is clear that the presents are not thoughtful or meaningful in any way. He leaves under the guise of getting his pipe, but it is really just an opportunity for him to go to another room and release some pent-up anger from living completely inside his own narcissistic world. He returns to the dinner, where Minus wants to put on a play that he wrote for his father. The other family members agree to perform. The play hits too close to home for David, though, as it deals with a man who chose fame over love. He applauds, but it is clear that the connection his son so desperately desires was not made.
As they make ready for bed, we begin to see for ourselves the agony of Karin's affliction. She spurns her husband's tender advances and they both go to sleep, only for Karin to be awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of the gulls outside her window. To her, it sounded like screaming. She also hears voices and she follows them to an abandoned upstairs room where they seem to be coming from inside the walls. She makes her way downstairs to find her father at work on his novel. He tucks her into his bed and she finally falls asleep. Minus then enters and asks for his father's help in retrieving the fishing nets. While they are away, Karin awakes and searches through her father's desk. There, she finds a note from her father's diary that reads - "Her illness is incurable. I'm horrified by my curiosity, by my urge to record its course, to make an accurate description of her gradual disintegration, to use her." She is dejected and returns to confide in her husband. But she cannot bring herself to tell him of her father's blantant study of her descent into madness. Martin attempts to console her.
The tension of these scenes is emphasized once again by Nykvist's cinematography. It is as if there is no night here, but rather in the words of Ebert's review, a "perpetual daylight." The tension continues to build through various confrontations between the family members. David and Martin discuss Karin's discovery and each levies serious accusations at the other. Martin finally recounts an attempted suicide, and David delivers one of the film's most moving lines of dialogue.
"From the void within me, something was born that I can't touch or name. A love. For Karin. For Minus. For you."
There are also multiple scenes between Minus and Karin where the tension builds in another way. Karin catches Minus looking at pinup magazines when he should be studying. Karin tells Minus of how she can hear voices and how she is afraid they will remove her from reality. Later, Minus finds Karin in an abandoned shipwreck after one of her episodes. Though nothing explicit is shown on screen, from later scenes we gater that an act of incest has occurred.
This builds to the film's emotional ending, as the characters come to terms with Karin's final descent into madness. Minus runs to find the others to bring them to Karin in the shipwreck. She tells her father that she is tired of "living in two worlds." David, in turn, confesses his own guilt to his daughter.
The decision is made to have Karin committed. As they wait for an ambulance to arrive, Karin begins to gather her things. She tells of how she thought that the voices in the wall were trying to lead her to God. She says that His arrival is imminent. In what has become the film's most famous scene, however, it becomes clear that she has finally fallen into madness. She tells of a spider that visited her and attempted to violate her. At the same time, we see as the helicopter ambulance descends beside the house - itself looking like a spider landing from an invisible thread. It is a fantastic visual cue that Karin is, as she says, somehow rooted in the real world but completely unable to ascertain the connection. The nurse knocks on the door, and Karin puts on sunglasses. This serves as her final symbolic gesture of giving over to the other world.
Going back to my opening remarks, had the movie chosen to end here, I would have been greatly disappointed and it certainly would not have become an instant favorite of mine. But it is so vitally important to consider how a movie chooses to end when analyzing it. Maybe that seems like an obvious thing to say, but that doesn't diminish its truth. This is the last opportunity to leave the audience with something that will linger in their minds. Here, this is done better maybe than any movie I have ever seen. And that is high praise coming from me, considering that my favorite movie of all time also contains an incredible ending.
Here, we finally see the emotional connection between father and son that Minus has been striving for. After his sister's departure, Minus tells his father that the horror of what he has just seen gives him great fear of continuing on. David tells his son that he must find something to hold on to if he wants to live. Minus scoffs and wonders if his father is referring to religion. He then asks his father for that timeless treasure that has been sought throughout human history - proof of God. He doesn't think his father can give that, but his father replies that he can, but Minus must listen. So must we. David tells Minus that he can only give his son "a hint of (his) own hope." He tells Minus that hope can be found in love - real love. Knowing that such love exists is enough to hold on to for David. He says that all kinds of love are worthy of holding on to. He then utters another of the film's great lines of dialogue.
"I do not know if love is proof of God's existence, or if love is God himself...that thought helps me in my emptiness and my dirty despair."
This gives Minus great hope, as he surmises that Karin must be surrounded by God since they all continue to love her. David agrees, and states his belief that such love can still help her even though she has seemingly lost touch with reality. As David leaves to make dinner, Minus utters the closing lines of the film, which are filled with emotional weight from all that we have seen.
"Papa spoke to me."
This final scene resolved the film, for me. Had the movie ended with Karin's vision, we'd have been left in a state of horror and despair. Certainly life contains such moments. There are times where we must confront darkness and the inevitable decay we all face. And yet, darkness is not all there is. There is a higher plane and a Greater Power. The film's final scene evokes this with such beauty and emotion. I will never forget watching it for the first time. I would go even further than David to say that love is clearly proof of God's existence. Where we tend to get tripped up is that we associate God with our own conceptions of human love, which are so often lacking in depth. But God is Love. He is the perfect example of love, and His love for us is never-ending.
I have come to love the films of Ingmar Bergman, and I still have so many to see. One reason I love them so is somewhat surface-level. Since they are foreign-language (Swedish) the films are entirely subtitled. I find that this helps as I watch at home. Even on the small screen in my living room, I feel something somewhat akin to the cinema experience because I must put away distraction and focus on the film in front of me. Since I am not able to understand the language simply through hearing it, I must always be watching the subtitles.
But I love the films for a much deeper reason also. Bergman has such a keen focus on faith and doubt in his films. He is constantly wrestling with the way humans interact with God. As a person whose faith in God is the foundation of life, I find great value in a director who would use his incredible talents to shine a light on such topics.
The film's title is itself a biblical allusion, coming from 1 Corinthians 13:12. In the King James Version it reads:
"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."
Note on content: There is some minor profanity in the film, but no overt violence. This film does contain some sexual content, as the pinup magazine Minus looks at in one scene is clearly visible to the camera. Also, a later scene between him and Karin makes it seem as if incest has occurred, though nothing is actually shown on screen. Karin and Martin are seen kissing in bed, but their emotional and physical distance is a key part of the film's plot. Karin's final scene also mentions a spider attempting to penetrate her. Again, nothing is shown on screen. However, this scene and many others are certainly disturbing in their mental imagery, and the philosophical fright that they bring about may be too heavy for younger viewers. This film certainly deals with dark themes, but I found it's closing note to be one of hope and love, thus making it a powerful film for viewers who are ready to handle its themes.