Sunday, 17 December 2017

Winter Light (Nattvardsgasterna) (1963)

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There is something very intense about Bergman’s movies in general. Characters are fighting internal battles with themselves, with their Gods or demons or, well whatever else that troubles them. When you get that inner struggle his movies are great. When you don’t, well, then you are in for a hard time. That is why Bergman is hit or miss.

This is particularly true for Winter Light (odd English title for what translates as “participants in the communion”) as there is little else in this movie than those internal battles.

I may understand the worries the characters in “Winter Light” have on an intellectual level, but they also feel alien enough that I have to strain to comprehend them. That makes “Winter Light” a difficult movie.

Central to “ Winter Light” is the priest Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand). He is the gloomy and serious looking priest of two small congregations in the Swedish outback. Behind the façade however, Tomas is a troubled man. He feels left by God and is rather bitter about it. For a priest that is pretty bad and Tomas does take it badly.

Since his wife died four years earlier he has struggled to find a meaning with his existence and he has found none. God is not helping him at all and God’s silence is making Tomas bitter. In fact his internal struggle dominates everything he says or does. He seems blind to the people who seek his help, and instead of assistance or understanding he lashes out in bitterness. His eye is turned inward instead of outward. In the movie this is exemplified by Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow in an uncharacteristic minor role), who is terribly afraid that the Chinese will nuke Sweden, and by Märta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin), who genuinely cares for him and wants a bit of attention in return.

In the case of Jonas, Tomas should have been listening and supporting Jonas. Instead he is telling him that life is pointless and without hope, based on his own misery. Jonas subsequently shoots himself, thank you for nothing. For Märta Tomas has no room in his life. Märta’s attention is unwanted and oppressive to him. If his mind is 100% filled with himself, how can she demand a piece of his attention and care as well? How can she demand that he should receive and return her love?

Frankly the egomanic Tomas is not very sympathetic and it is frustrating to see that the meaning he is looking for, the divine element is right before him, yet his egomaniac obsession prevents him from recognizing it. I felt like screaming at him, but it would have been to no avail. No amount of imploring could have opened his mind. He was too far gone in his self-pity.

Near the end Tomas has a conversation with Algot Frövik (Allan Edwall), a sexton, which I suspect is key to the movie. Algot says that Jesus greatest suffering was that he though God had left him, there on the cross. This, I suppose, would compare Tomas suffering to that of Jesus’ and in Christianity it just does not get bigger than that. Exactly what effect that has on Tomas is not clear to me. He simply proceeds to give service to an empty church. It makes the story feel unresolved, but I am probably missing something as usual.

Those heavy stone churches, grave priests and empty churches are very familiar to me. Except for the snow this could have been in Denmark. I was surprised to note that this was already the case in 1963. It could easily have played out in 2017 and I guess that makes the story relevant today. It just does not feel that relevant to me, but that has more to do with me not being religious. The neurotic worries of religious people are always difficult for me to grasp. For somebody more religiously connected I can imagine this movie will resonate quite well.

Still, I do like the idea of cutting this deep, to the bare bones in a story. It gives movies a focus rather than distractions and Bergman was a master of that exercise. I do not recall watching a movie as naked as this one, though. The black and white photography helps a lot, but this is really all about communicating internal turmoil, which in turn means acting and direction.

This is a movie I admire more than I enjoyed. I did not connect sufficiently with the subject matter and it feels unresolved, but I would still recommend it. It is very much Bergman.


  1. You are really flying through 1963! Haven't seen this one yet so just barely skimmed your review.

    1. No, problem. I will wait till you have seen it.
      It is going fast right now, but that is coincidental. Actually I am not too happy with 63 so for. The movies are very bleak.

  2. I found this to be a powerful film, and one that expressed something that I had trouble (until recently) actually putting in words.

    Do yourself a favor--look up Divine Hiddenness. It explains a great deal.

    1. I will look it up, it sounds interesting.
      This is certainly a movie that requires you to think.