“Men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the broad tides of rivers, the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, yet pass over the mystery of themselves without a thought.”
– St Augustine, Confessions
After he had finished this film, Bergman showed it to his wife. She merely stated, apparently: ‘Yes, Ingmar, it’s a masterpiece. But it’s a dreary masterpiece.’ The director himself thought it was the best thing he had ever done: “Everything is exactly as I wanted to have it, in every second of this picture.” It is true that there is not a wasted second. It is an utterly controlled monument to martyred genius. And we must pour over it, in the hope of finding what Bergman, the cruellest of directors, once tried to convey.
He was captivated by the ‘mystery’ of the self, of our inabilities to communicate with even our own understandings of existence. His later work clambers endlessly towards what this film promises, in embryonic state; the possibility, however unlikely, of some simple human warmth, and connection (the Swedish title for the film means literally The Communicants). But he is thwarted, repeatedly, and must purge himself of all those things that are decaying within him. And so there is the silence of God, and there is the silence of Man. Woman, it seems, has the enviable power of perfect verbal clarity. They always do in Bergman. If there is no creator, we may turn to the female monologue for some comfort (just don’t, for Christ’s sake, watch Persona). Even the priest, like Bresson’s, is full of this deep silence, despite his attempts to overcome. He cannot control his words or his thoughts, and his own body battles against him. His wife has died, caught in the silence of the grave, and God, or at least the impression of God, has vanished with her. All that remains is doubt, so that he cannot even prevent a man from shooting himself in the empty quiet of a Swedish forest.
And so the desire to hate, so evident in the duality of Catholicism, fills this man like a vessel, until bile spews from his lips and those around him fall vacant and broken. Finally, only Marta, the lovely Ingrid Thulin, can encapsulate this most profound faith; she does not believe, and God is nothing to her. His deathly silence is of no consequence. But she, even, is covered in sores. And the priest can only see, in true and ugly Catholic style, her disgusting physicality, her sins. We are reminded, all of a sudden, that this is the same monotheistic religion that governed cruelly and brutally for so many long years. Only the sexton presents solace, rising above his own suffering to argue that Christ also was betrayed, and felt his Father’s silence. Does the priest hear this most empathetic and beautiful reasoning? That is for us to decide. Bergman probably had no answer.
Perhaps doubt is not the right word here. I’d go for ‘suspicion‘; the belief that God, if He is there, is toying viciously with us. How else could God appear, but as a spider, echoing Harriet Andersson’s horrifying vision (never seen) in Through A Glass Darkly? And so if God is empty, or malicious, or merely distracted, we have only each other. And there lies Bergman’s endless clamber, and the aspect of his work that is most ignored: it is a masterpiece, yes, and, Christ, is it a dreary one, but only because Bergman is attempting to convince us that our grubby, groping humanity, probably, hopefully, is enough.