I first became aware of Bergman’s 1962 film Winter Light not so long ago, maybe only a year or so. I was channel-flicking and came upon a lengthy monologue, delivered in Swedish by Ingrid Thulin, as schoolteacher Märta Lundberg, and found it incredibly gripping. Not just the articulate and incisive translated subtitles, but also Thulin’s bare face, direct address, and strong conveyance of emotion. The monologue lasts for seven or eight minutes and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. It was a hefty way through the film so I opted not to continue but instead to make a mental note and watch it again when I could.
Finally, it was repeated on television again only a couple of weeks ago, mid-morning, and I watched it from beginning to end. I found it just as engrossing and beautiful and strange as that monologue which captivated me months beforehand. It’s incredibly subtle, to the point where you wonder at times why it has such a strong reputation. But it’s one of those films that lingers in the memory and, once it’s over, you feel you’ve witnessed something quietly special. While watching, it seems somewhat slight, but it’s had quite a big effect on me.
It’s a bleak, desolate film featuring ruminations on death, religion, love, and depression, but never in a cliched way and never so stilted as to try to force such weighty themes into the script. It looks unremittingly beautiful and stark, and the performances are understated and played straight. It’s not a light, airy film. It’s pretty easy to follow when you’re watching it, but there’s no light relief and very little, if any, humour – all contributing to its desolate, lonely mood.
There are a number of iconic scenes but the one that still stands out is the aforementioned lengthy direct-address by Ingrid Thulin as Märta, as she reads out her heartfelt letter to Tomas, the Pastor of the Swedish rural village. His later no-holds-barred verbal attack on Märta is shocking and incredibly sad all at once, and another memorable moment from a thoroughly memorable film.
At 81 minutes, Winter Light is not a difficult mountain to climb but don’t expect it to leave you unmoved. It’s a subtle masterpiece. As Ingmar Bergman’s wife told him, “yes, it’s a masterpiece, but it’s a dreary masterpiece.” A back-handed compliment maybe, but really an honest one. Ingmar Bergman succeeds in making the dreary and the desolate extremely beautiful.