Winter Light is one of cinema’s great comedies, consistently producing the kind of hard, hearty laughter that nourishes the soul through its deceptively dour deadpan—imagine Robert Bresson directing a Buster Keaton feature and you’ll have an inkling of its brilliance. Perhaps the most humorous aspect of Winter Light is that, to my knowledge, most view it as yet another bleak and drab entry in writer-director Ingmar Bergman’s quintessentially Swedish examinations of faith, a clear indication that his universal comic aptitudes (see especially his early career masterpiece Smiles of a Summer Night) are sorely undervalued by critics and cinephiles alike.
Winter Light is the middle (I think best) film in Bergman’s self-proclaimed faith trilogy that includes the earlier god-as-spider thriller Through a Glass Darkly and the subsequent surrealist psychodrama The Silence, and its comedic possibilities should at least be hinted at by the seasonal setting (how bizarre, say those familiar with the director’s preferred working methods, for Bergman to be making a film in the harsh Swedish winter!) Yet by positing Winter Light as a comedy, I mean in no way to devalue its seriousness—to my mind it is one of the most profound examinations of Christianity and its imprisoning tenets, save that it arrives at its thematic conclusions through a stripped-down, theater-of-the-absurd aesthetic that stands proudly alongside (and many times one-ups) the no-exit theatrical confrontations of Bergman’s generational parallel, Samuel Beckett.
Setting the comic stage is the film’s opening close-up of the sickly and apathetic Pastor Tomas Ericsson, played by Gunnar Björnstrand, a frequent Bergman collaborator on stage and screen with a remarkable ability for accentuating character through the use of makeup and wardrobe. Note his holy trinity of physical choices in this introductory image—melding Keaton’s stoneface with Charlie Chaplin’s shiny, salt-and-pepper locks, then topping it off with Harold Lloyd’s characteristic black spectacles. No mistake that Björnstrand’s corporeal accouterments are inspired by silent-film comedians (as my Christian upbringing taught me, there is perhaps no more preposterous figure of fun than a dumbstruck, four-eyed priest), but the actor brilliantly completes the portrait with his vocal intonation: a dull, rhythmless monotone that complements his physicality as surely as, in the best of cinema, sound complements image.
Moving on from this dazzling character introduction, Bergman details the Pastor’s afternoon church service to absurd specifics—for the film’s first 10 minutes the dialogue is entirely liturgical, and it suggests that the best comedy often comes from an artist’s examination of everyday ritual. Working with his superlative cameraman Sven Nykvist, Bergman observes both the church’s tacky décor (with a hastily carved, crucified Christ—held aloft by a Punch-and-Judy like Holy Father—as the tawdry centerpiece) and the individual dramas of Ericsson’s few, distracted parishioners. Among the attendees (with particular sideline highlights provided by a bored, tongue-smacking child and a going-through-the-motions organist) are a suicidal fisherman (Max von Sydow) and his pregnant wife (Gunnel Lindblom), and Ericsson’s former mistress, the schoolmarm-from-hell Märta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin).
It only helps with Bergman’s cinema to familiarize oneself with the performance tendencies of his stock company. As Björnstrand depends primarily on external appearance in his creation of character, so Ingrid Thulin projects her eccentricities of being from a temperamentally masochistic interior. As Märta, her mousy wardrobe and makeup (which has the interesting effect of elongating her lips into a death’s-mask grimace) seems less an actor’s choice than an inevitable result of a kind of Method immersion in character. In her celebrated fourth-wall breaking monologue, where she recites a particularly inflammatory letter to Pastor Ericsson in extended close-up, Thulin’s eyes widen ever-so-subtly as the minutes and syllables pass; by the end she looks like one of Tex Avery’s ravenous wolves, ready to kill and devour her lover because of some misguided amorous desires. It’s a sequence of increasing hilarity, culminating in a shock-cut back to Pastor Ericsson as he desperately tries to fold up and organize the letter’s many, many pages (Märta is nothing if not committed to her masochism.)
In a later schoolhouse-set dialogue between Märta and the Pastor, the characters’ relationship reaches its apex and Bergman’s film reveals its true colors as a pitch-black romantic comedy. Pastor Ericsson has just come from the scene of a suicide, having been called to identify and attend to the shotgun-blasted body of von Sydow’s fisherman, to whom he ineffectively ministered. (With its river-rapids setting and in its languorous rhythm of performance—Björnstrand silently standing over von Sydow’s body as if attending to his own excrement—this sequence anticipates the pokerfaced, malaise-ridden comedies of the great Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang.) Now inspired to a vicious exchange with Märta, Pastor Ericsson unburdens his soul, unleashing his former lover’s sorrowful tears with raw, emotional accusations. Her hysterical reply is to offer him aspirin (Märta truly being the headache made flesh.) Ericsson, fed up with her schoolmarm shenanigans, makes for the door so that he can attend his evening church service, but halts just before his exit. Turning around and shuffling back with a vaguely Chaplinesque gait, he sits down dejectedly and asks if she’d like to come with him.
Bergman uses the subtle tenets of film comedy to strip down clichéd notions of love and faith to their bare essence, revealing them, at heart, to be potentially imprisoning, yet necessary human ideologies. Märta and Ericsson’s mutual faith and love—one to the other—is the antidote to Christianity’s deistic figurehead, who (if he exists) appears content to remain at a quiet remove from his creatures’ affairs. Bergman has stated numerous times that he doesn’t believe in God, but Winter Light‘s climax (where Ericsson, in Märta’s company, begins his evening sermon before an otherwise empty church, in a nonetheless beatific close-up that parallels the final image of Chaplin’s titularly similar City Lights) suggests that the director does believe in the essential goodness of the human spirit, the soulful desire to carry on with our many rituals of existence because of the knowledge that somehow, some way, our actions always manage to touch and to inspire at least one other.