Ingmar Bergman's films often dwell on the world and what it would look like without belief in God. Winter Light is one of the most successful and stark of these meditations on the world as it might exist without the grace of God or indeed without the grace of redeeming human emotions. Opening in a church service where the parishioners cough and badly sing through the spectacle of communion, closing with a church service delivered to a congregation of one, the film explores a period of a mere three hours, but a three hours packed with incident, with declarations of love and rejection and with a tragic suicide in the face of despair about the purposelessness of existance. Everything exists inside a bleak Swedish winter, where everything is barren, in a town that is decaying and within the minds of characters who have none of the alacrity of youth or the acheivement of age to reconcile them to a world grown as cold as the winter skies above them.
Throughout the film Bergman balances between two sides of the same sentence. Going back to his previous film, Through a Glass Darkly which finished with the sentiment that God is love, Bergman attempts to balance in Winter Light one character who beleives in God and another who beleives in a self denying love. The priest who has lost his wife and his congregation stands and sits and thinks almost alone in his church, confessing to all and sundry the fact that all he can hear, all he can perceive is the reality of God's silence. The world for him has become quiet and he finds now no words even to express sympathy or even pain. Left with guilt but without forgiveness, his soul is rendered an arid wasteland, unable to offer sustenance to his parishioners. Tomas, the priest, admits at one point that God for him is a distant father- authoritarian and harsh and forever a source of guilt and not comfort. His lover Marta points out to him that the one part of his faith that she cannot understand is the fact that whereas he beleives in God, his belief in Christ is purely academic. She on the other hand beleives in a self denying, self sacraficing love which goes beyond the mere impulse of humanity and into a cause for which she wishes to live. Desiring to find a cause, she prays to a God that she does not beleive in and receives the cause of loving a man that does not love her, of sacraficing herself to a deity that does not care.
Some of the most powerful imagery within the film is scriptural- it moves upon the famous line of Christ on the cross, 'Why hast thou forsaken me', a line repeated throughout the film. The theme of the silence of the beloved, the silence of God runs right through the film. Partly an image created by a cinematographic technique, the use of long and almost uninterrupted soliloquays and the lack of successful communication amongst the principals and partly the image is created by the stark bleakness of a Swedish winter but the question is always there. When will God talk to those that serve him, that love him? Bergman captures something here about the religious experience- the experience of doubt- he does not develop or seek to develop easy answers to the way that man might depend on God.
The film though is a trajectory as well as a still. There is a movement through the film- the priest decisively rejects Marta, arguing that he finds her repulsive. He tells her, filled with contempt, finding her personally irksom and physically she disgusts him. The contempt that echoes through his voice at this key point in the plot, where he tells her of what he thinks of her is amongst the most brutal rejections of anyone in contemporary cinema, as she plaintively asks him towards the end 'Could it get any worse'. Rejection is here made explicit- her love offered earlier in the film is thrown back into her face, seen as an insult, an attempt to control him. Her love though is also an effort to provide her own life with purpose- she is possessive, she wishes to be with the beloved no matter what he thinks, she wants understanding and wants a kind of consideration that is an invasion of his freedom.
Marta's crisis is preceded by Tomas's crisis. For he faces the fact that he cannot minister- he tries to help Jonas a man whose doubt is sending him straight to suicide. Jonas sees the possibility of nuclear war as being a final apocalypse which brings home to him the futility of all human construction and building. Though he loves his wife, though he enjoys his job and is successful within it, Jonas sees all that he is building and constructing as subject to the whim of far away authorities. Deprived of any security, Jonas therefore wishes to kill himself. Tomas's attempt to make him see the value of his life fails, Tomas fails because he himself cannot aid anyone in doubt- he cannot provide consolation and admits that he only lives on because one must live on. Such frail justifications cannot save Jonas, and Bergman implies cannot save man from the misery of his own futile existance.
The sadness of rejected love is brought forth perhaps most convincingly in two speeches at the end of the film, one by the sexton and one by the organist. The sexton speaks of Christ upon the cross, the full speech is quoted on here, even if you don't watch the film but are interested in religion, it is worth reading. As a meditation on the true suffering endured by Christ on the cross, that it wasn't the torment neccessarily but those words, Why hast thou forsaken me?, which marked the bottom of his torment, the bottom of his existance when even the son of God turned his mind to God and found no consolation, no presence amongst the encroaching darkness of his existance. Nobody has captured that better than Bergman in this film, as the lame sexton recounts his own reading of scripture taken exactly literally, the torment that the silence and absense of God is, the torment that some theological authorities have described, rather than the traditional fiery pits, as the true essense of hell.
Framed by the ceremonies of the communion services in two different village churches in rural Sweden, the film offers little comfort. However the little that it does offer it offers through the counterposition of the two services, the movement between them symbolises a kind of provisional and not very satisfactory answer to the mystery of God's silence. I mentioned two conversations- in the second of which the organist offers to Marta worldly consolations. He tells her to leave, tells her that the sentiment that God is love, that loves proves the existance of God is an ultimate failure, an ultimate 'drill' which serves merely to convince the credulous, contemptuous of Tomas's love for his ex-wife, he leaves Marta with his contempt, referring to her both as a 'little woman' and as 'Florence Nightingale'. In this he echoes what Tomas had said to Jonas about his own religion, how it was an illusion formed out of the love he had for his first wife. He echoes what Tomas says about the priesthood to Marta in bitterness, that it wasn't his choice to enter the ministry but his father's choice. Bergman gives us the strength of a reductionalism untinted with sentimentality. But Bergman does not leave us with this speech of cynicism- something else finishes this film.
For we finish not with the speech but as the film opens, with a service. But this service unlike the first one is given to a congregation of one- the organist beleives that because the one is only Marta and she is part of the 'sheep pen' that there needs be no service but the vicar carries on to give it, Marta asks God if only they could beleive and have some truth and in truth little more truth is left at the end of the film than at the beggining save for this: the priest at the end of the film gives a service only to Marta. The last close up before the vicar begins the service is upon Marta's face tilted upwards, stained with tears but looking upwards towards the altar. It isn't a satisfactory resolution but in some sense this gesture bound in with ceremony and formalism is a kind of starched feeling emmitted from Tomas towards Marta. In a sense, what we are left with is the sense that giving the service represents a kind of love- fittingly the last lines of the film are the traditional lines of the service, 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts', a ritual in service of God but now a ritual imbued with a kind of consideration- Marta isn't in the sheep pen, she deserves a service.
Bergman therefore offers us in this film both the ritual of Christianity and the selfishness of love, but in a sense in the last scene they are bound together, the ritual acquires humanity, the love for a moment unselfishness. Whether that state can last in the world as it is, in the bleak Swedish midwinter, or whether Tomas's God will resume his fatherly distance and Marta's love its selfish clinging nature is left uncertain. Indeed whether in the last moment of the film, it is God that inspires Tomas's act of forgiveness- we do not know, as Marta says at another point of the film that is an explanation that goes beyond what we can say.
This film is amongst the most brilliant ever made- scarcely a shot is wasted, every actor gives a performance which gives life to this drama about meaning and about the soul. More than that though Bergman maps out the sadness of human minds lost in the torment of existance- lost in a hell of soliloquays, lost in what a modern psychologist would easily describe as depression. What he does also though is give us an affirmation- however weak we may feel it- that the acts of love, the acts of consideration, the ritual of personal relations however weak and however futile they seem do have a meaning. The human condition might be summed up with Christ's words on the cross or Job's to the heavens or the sexton's to the priests, that loneliness and sense of bereftness, that sense that God and man are blind to our suffering, that the world ressembles not so much a cradle for the human soul as a gallery where anonymous judges patroll the rim and look inwards upon us, lonely in the centre as we try to explain ourselves. But over and above all there are some acts of kindness, of love, we close not upon a cynical speech but upon the last service. God may or may not exist, he may or may not have stopped speaking, all we have to suggest he might is the love that we feel and act on between ourselves.