Cries and WhispersReviewed By Dr. Isaksson
Posted 02/29/04 08:43:37
At the close of 1971 Ingmar Bergman was having a low moment in his cinematic career. His last film 1971's 'The Touch' was a huge disappointment with the critics and the viewing public. Despite having an american star, (Elliot Gould) and boasting the past Bergman alum's Bibi Andersson and Max Von Sydow, 'The Touch' lost money for the ABC network which had funded the english spoken film. No one was expecting much from Bergman in the coming year but with a minuscule budget and with all his actors taking a cut in salary for their work, the famed swedish director created and unraveled before the world one of his greatest films ever, "Cries and Whispers". A breathless, haunted masterpiece that snagged awards from all directions and made a lot of the world sit and take notice that Ingmar Bergman still had plenty to say and show them.The setting is Sweden in the early 1900s. In a manor house that sits upon a picturesque landscape, we enter a huge room with long walls, all a deep shade of red. It is silent except for the sound of clocks ticking. In this stillness during a cold autumn morning, a beautiful gilded clock comes into frame decorated with cherubs and other angelic figures. Then another clock passes by, each seeming to be a representation of the slow and steady passage of time. The time in the life of a person who is sleeping within this red room. Then we see Agnes (Harriet Andersson) awaken from an unsteady sleep. Her sudden and stark black eyed stare directly into the camera immediately tells us that an uncompromising destiny must soon unfold. Agnes creeps out of bed and steps to the window where she gazes out onto a bleak autumn scene. There are a change of colors on the trees but the sky is cloudy, gray and motionless. Agnes then writes in her journal, noting the date and the weather. Her two sisters Karin (Ingrid Thulin) the eldest and Maria (Liv Ullmann) the youngest, are both staying with her and have been taking turns keeping watch over her. Agnes also writes in definite strokes that she is in pain. Physical pain by an internal cancer that has been mercilessly consuming her.
Karin and Maria awaken that day and attend to Agnes with a speechless course of duty. Neither being all that happy to partake in such an event. But Agnes is a spinster and only lives with her maid Anna (Kari Sylwan). With no one saying the words, the scenario becomes clear that Karin, Maria and Anna are on a death watch for their middle sister Agnes. The events are uncertain and with each hour the end creeps closer. How they will all react, and deal with the darkest horrors that are soon to come can only play itself out in a harrowing and shattering agony. Truths are told and fears are expressed. Separations occur and unsteady unions are melded. But as with all things that remain unsettled, a great uncertainty must always remain.
In Cries and Whispers color is a definitive addition to make a silent statement. The color of the great bedroom Agnes resides in is a vibrant and deep red. Past critics have noted that this must signify blood and pain but Bergman states that all his life he's imagined that the human soul is a flowing membrane of the color red. The stark white dresses worn by Karin and Maria could very well then signify a slight coldness and blankness of emotion toward the warmth and thick embodiment of the red soul that encompasses Agnes.
Throughout the film the viewer is introduced into each of the characters past life experiences through flashbacks. Karin is suffocating in a loveless marriage to an older man who is too involved in politics to notice her pain. Her long frozen emotions and dying heart are crying out for human contact but she cannot say the words or scream out her frustrations. Karin has not found love with her husband nor her sisters and her stiff and damaged demeanor is displayed with white-knuckled perfection by Bergman mainstay Ingrid Thulin. Maria, the youngest and the one favored most by their mother, is guilty of a past full of self indulgence and good living and we learn that her nature is one that only encompasses selfishness and deception so that she can attain what she desires. The always great Liv Ullmann was showered with awards during the 70's and gained a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress in 1972 for her portrayal of the lusty Maria.
But amazingly it is the simplest character, Agnes, who commands our greatest attention. Her acceptance of her sickness and her relentless suffering are almost sickeningly gratifying to behold and Andersson's performance is one of inexplicable genius. The benevolent maid Anna, who speaks in whispers, is portrayed with a soft and loving hope by Kari Sylwan and the devotion she exudes amongst insurmountable odds certainly warms the screen after the two sisters have left it cold and alone. In one famous shot, which was also used as the promotional poster for the film, Anna cradles the dying Agnes. The image is surely meant to mimic that of Mary holding her dead son Jesus and it's this image that stays with the viewer long after the film ends.
There is one single scene in the film that I must address which might help me express how good the performances are. It has stayed with me for years after I saw it and it is almost so subtle that I almost feel as if I am imagining it... After a long night of agonizing pain, Agnes is being tended to by her sisters and as they redress her and comb her limp hair she gently smiles at them but then her gaze goes down towards the floor, she sees nothing but there is a moment where, on her face, a look of resignation covers her mind. Without a single action of word. I swear I could see that Agnes was certain that her death had arrived and she was able and willing to accept it. The moment was so quick and flawless, so completely without showy distress that I am certain that this is the pinnacle of what brilliant acting can and should be. Harriet Andersson should have gotten every award imaginable for her work, but she garnered nothing."Cries and Whispers" is a film about a woman searching for the ending chapter to her journal. That moment in life where all is right with oneself and now, that one can lay an exhausted head back and close their eyes, smiling. Knowing that, if even only for an instant, they have attained a state of perfect happiness. ***** 5 Stars
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