Winter Light (1963)

Film Review

September 2019

The Mind of Ingmar Bergman

Like a chef losing taste or a painter losing sight, a priest losing faith is an occupational dilemma. That’s putting it lightly for Winter Light’s central figure Tomas, a priest whose wife’s death has uprooted his entire existence. He is defunct without faith—unable to provide its blanket to those who confide in him. The image of God he had long “clutched in the dark” has vanished leaving him shivering in the cold walls of his church. Ingmar Bergman spent much of his career treating his films like a philosophical journal. In some, he asks questions and finds answers; there is both confusion and resolution. In others, namely Winter Light, he goes on asking and asking till his poor characters are driven mad. This film, bookended by the sound of church bells, feels like one long, confused and digressive sermon.

Pastor Tomas, early on, looks at a carved wooden Christ and growls, “what a ridiculous image.” He behaves like a bitter child ignored by his father. The same unrequited love is found in Marta, a woman whose affections for the priest spin her in circles. Just as Tomas cannot bear the silence of God, Marta cannot bear the silence of love. It is a painfully silent film. There is no music beyond the yawning efforts of a church organist—the viewer is forced to suffer with the characters. The suffering is made bearable by the powerful imagery and performances expected of a Bergman film. An indelible moment stands out (pictured above) in which Tomas becomes a literal manifestation of a devil on Jonas’ shoulder.

This is Bergman wrestling with nihilism but I know him well enough to see straight through it. Winter Light is earnest spiritual enquiry. We are left feeling not entirely convinced of Tomas’ loss of faith. He is pretending to be free of it just as he pretended to have it. And so his struggle will continue long after the film’s end. I have a soft spot for Scandinavian cinema. It speaks to that DNA in me inclined to wonder what on earth I’m doing here. Thank God I’m not a priest.