Cries and Whispers (1972) / Drama
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MPAA Rated: R for sexuality, nudity, and some language
Running Time: 91 min.
Cast: Harriet Andersson, Liv Ulmann, Ingrid Thulin, Kari Sylwan, Erland Josephson, Anders Elk, Georg Arlin, Henning Moritzen, Inga Gill
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Review published October 21, 2005
Call Bergman pretentious if you must, but never discount his ability to make thought provoking and stimulating adult dramas that challenge and inspire. Cries and Whispers is a prime example of his technique, as he shows us things that most other directors fight very hard to avoid - stasis, coldness, death, and dysfunction. Although there are certain metaphors one can draw from his work here, this is also one of his most accessible movies for the uninitiated, as it only veers into the realm of the surreal toward the end of the film.
The setting is Sweden of the past, where a woman named Agnes (Andersson) is literally on her deathbed, afflicted with pain and suffering on a daily basis that will ultimately lead to her certain demise. In these final days, she is attended to by her two sisters, Karin (Thulin) and Maria (Ullman), and also her faithful and loving maid, Anna (Sylwan). The relationships between the siblings have never been very close, stemming from a cold and sometimes unpleasant childhood, with the young women never really being able to communicate love or affection with one another. The dysfunctional background has caused many problems in their adult lives, especially in their ability to cope in the face of tragedy.
Like many of Bergman's films, dual themes of life and death are in the mix, made especially evident in the color schemes of red (love, blood, the soul), white (emptiness, detachment, sterility) and black (death, despair, hate). Although related by blood, Agnes seeks affection and comfort from Anna, the maid, as the only person that cares enough to even touch her and be close in her time of agony and great need. Indeed, everyone is suffering because of it, although they just can't seem to break through the layers of emotional distance between themselves to comfort one another. Easier to remain aloof and impersonal than to bear one's soul, and despite the momentary lapses where they find the ability to finally relate to one another, perhaps it is asking too much to change now. This is ultimately a very pessimistic film, but cathartic in its depictions of angst-filled repression.
Cries and Whispers would go on to earn five academy award nominations, including Best Picture, a rarity for a subtitled foreign language film. If would win for the stunning cinematography from Sven Nykvist (Sleepless in Seattle, Crimes and Misdemeanors), which is so rich and lovely, there is a timeless quality to the movie that makes it seem fresh even today. Even if the movie is old, the themes are absolute -- to love is a gift, as Agnes has come to find out. To find companionship and affection is something one should never take for granted, and to cherish those moments where you can be close to someone, for it may be fleeting.
If you've always avoided a Bergman film because you feel it will be a headache-inducing two hours of obtuse symbolism, but you've always wanted to give one of his films a try, this may be your best bet.
©2005 Vince Leo