Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Voltaire said God would have to be invented if he does not exist. The present film is a critique of Christianity, of religion in general, and the impotence of the clergy to provide succor to those in distress. It captures a rural Scandinavian environment in deep winter, the gloom penetrated by shafts of wan luminescence. From the interiors of the humble church to the transcendent riverside setting, where, among the gurgling and clear waters the climactic suicide occurs, it is black and white poetry.
The film opens during a church service in progress as the pastor Tomas conducts the desultory rituals which are shown in all their prolonged monotony. Nobody is paying much attention as Tomas' liturgical drone peters off to it's conclusion. Afterwards he is approached by the fisherman Jonas and his wife. Jonas is extremely distressed about the possibility of nuclear holocaust, to the point of being rendered virtually speechless. But the priest is unable to offer any solace and confesses he himself is floundering on the same rocks of meaninglessness of life in a godless universe. Soon after Jonas shoots himself by a stream. Another plot-line relates to the school teacher Marta, who wants to marry the pastor. In a confrontation, in the most hurtful way, the pastor expresses the revulsion he feels for the woman. Towards the end Tomas' assistant, a man with a crooked body damaged in a rail-road accident expresses his own doubts about faith, claiming his own agony of years is greater than of Christ, whose suffering was physical and limited in duration.
Perhaps the director is expressing his own anxieties. The need for a sense of purpose in life is deeply embedded and one suspects that Bergman has raised questions of great importance and urgency and in all honesty made no pretense of answering them. It is the crisis of extinction of faith with no replacement in sight. As the UN charter perceptively states, the causes of war exist in the human heart. This is a film to do with more than just a pastor and a fisherman. The coming of the nuclear age makes these issues the more pressing.