A young woman (Gunnel Lindblom) travels by train with her son (Jorgen Lindstrom) and older sister (Ingrid Thulin) to a country best by civil war; the eldest sister, Ester, struck by illness and sequestered in a hotel room, is the intellectually and erotically impoverished counterpoint to the younger, sexually curious Anna. The young boy, Johan, is intrigued by the stately hotel, a wanderer of its hallways and rooms, an explorer of sorts, whose curiosities find their more troubling, sometimes grotesque and abrasive corollary in the shrunken emotional netherworld of aunt and mother.
Unlike his Winter Light, released a year earlier, Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963), which plays this afternoon and tonight at the Walter Reade‘s Swedish series, is interested less in the fact of accepting an inconsolably secular world than in imagining what that world might look like, in taking a walking tour of the house long after the master left his keys behind.
The hotel itself is big, its windows draped, its corridors carpeted and its walls thick—it allows for noise and ruckus without the risk of being identified. But lots of noise and ruckus appears in Bergman’s film, even when the tensions and contradictions of his characters—their personal needs, wants, desires—sometimes make this ruckus unsustainable.
The Silence, then, is a bird’s-eye view of three people trying to acquaint themselves with newfound possibilities. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s images are remarkably sturdy, bold and clean, giving us a remarkable visual corroboration of Thulin and Lindblom’s distinctive psychic austerity. Bergman’s close-ups of his two leading ladies rehearse Persona by three years, although The Silence has its most organic relationship with Winter Light and Through a Glass Darkly before it, playing like a solution or reconciliation of the theological problems posed by those two earlier films. For the silence of Bergman’s film is not only a consequence of living in a world without the Word of God, but also a flexible aesthetic resource, manifest by hushed rhythms and tones, deceptive in its stylistic calm; one always has the impression that those quiet moments are the surface features of a very complicated, intemperate mix of unresolved feelings below. Under Bergman’s watch, those quiet moments and unoccupied rooms become surface features that translate very complicated feelings in ways that are pointed and palpable. Memorably, the film’s closing image turns this dilemma into a sobering visual metaphor; far from feeling dispiriting, it gives the film its sense of grandeur and mystery, its depth and humanity both within Bergman’s career and the Swedish cinema at large.