Eye For Film >> Movies >> Winter Light (1962) Film Review
Ingmar Bergman's questioning of faith was one of his favourite themes, and he challenged it in everything from The Seventh Seal to The Silence. But like all the most intelligent atheists (such as Pasolini, a Marxist who made a film about Jesus with the Catholic Church), he spent his life trying to understand his faith or lack thereof. Few of his films tackle the subject head on in the way Winter Light does, however, and he rightly considered it one of his best works. It's a harrowing but ultimately uplifting portrayal of the naive optimism of faith and its pros and cons.
Tomas (Gunnar Björnstrand) is the pastor of a small northern community, who continues to give sermons with grim determination, despite the poor attendance (only seven people sit in the congregation, including the organist). But his faith is tested when one man comes to him with suicidal problems - the idea that China might have the atomic bomb is more than he can take (This is set just before the Cuban Missile crisis). Why would God allow such brutality in this world? Persson (Max von Sydow) has to take his wife home but is made to promise to return and talk with Tomas. As the clock ticks by, Persson's return comes to mean more for Tomas than simply helping one of his flock. It's about helping himself too, for he has been doubting God's existence since his wife died four years previously.
In many ways Winter Light is the same film as Through A Glass Darkly - they were made within a year of each other - in that they are Bergman's reflections on the cruelty of God when humans need Him most. The two are explicitly linked when Tomas talks of a Spider God, the same Dali-esque nightmare imagery that Karin uses in Through A Glass. But unlike Karin, no one in this film is reduced to insanity. Rather, there's a cruel logic and rationalism to their actions, perhaps an even more tragic prospect.
Winter Light is at its most moving when it tackles the theology head on. In the final scenes, the crippled church sexton discusses his interpretation of the Passion with Tomas, expecting to be schooled in the true meaning of Christ's suffering, rather than the other way round. It's a fascinating monologue, and goes to show that Bergman was a religious philosopher as much as a filmmaker (Whether he would of liked this label remains to be seen).
The cold, clear winter light that seeps through the windows of the church comes to represent the faith of everyone inside. In the summer of his life Tomas once stood in its warmth, sure of God's love, but now that everything seems to test him, that light has turned pallid and cold. But Winter Light ends with a message of renewed faith - it hasn't gone dark after all. If Bergman always seems too bleak for you, this might ultimately change your mind.Reviewed on: 21 Feb 2008
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If you like this, try:Through A Glass Darkly