A&F Top 100 film Cries and Whispers just went live. Bergman's unrelenting masterpiece came in this year at #52. Here's how the blurb turned out:
“I received the most wonderful gift anyone can receive in this life. A gift that is called many things: togetherness, companionship, relatedness, affection. I think this is what is called ‘grace.’”
It’s amazing to find these words in what might otherwise be called one of the most emotionally wracking films ever made. They come from the diary of a tormented, cancer-stricken woman, Agnes, who seems to rot away as we helplessly view her demise.
Holed up in a large mansion with chiming bells and ticking clocks that are a constant reminder of her time left, her journey to the end is excruciatingly slow. Two sisters and the long-time housemaid comfort her in whatever way they can (the housemaid does better than the sisters). But the mental anguish they all go through becomes a nightmare in which sickness steals joy, isolation strands people in loneliness, and tears signify failed moments of hope.
As they dress and wash the dying Agnes, reading stories to her and trying to cope, the sisters are reunited only to grapple with their own past guilt. Karin stays responsible with the bookkeeping and the bills, preparing for the funeral and the will of the estate. Maria wants to aid Agnes but recoils in fear at the terror of this haunting disease. Housekeeper Anna is the most compassionate, attending to Agnes at all hours of the night, when she writhes and screams in agony as the wind howls outside.
Many forms of human contact are treasured, but especially when they are close, physical, real: A child to her mother; a doctor to his patient; sisters for years in need of forgiveness. But there are undesired touches, too, so repugnant in nature that they result in overwhelming, horrifying, visceral responses. We need to be aware of the timing in our touch. We need to bring compassion when reaching out to another.
Bergman’s use of red highlights the soul and blood of the family, the ties to kin that can't be broken. In the same way there is a constant use of white set firmly over the red, in a color scheme that suggests a longing for purity. In the creaking dream-like house where Agnes lays, whether truly alive or finally departed, there’s a longing for connection and a whispering hope for absolution. While living and breathing, whether in health or in sickness, with friends or alone, in moments of triumph or despair—there is always a new chance, every dawn of every day, to make the right choices to move forward in grace.