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CRIES AND WHISPERS (Viskningar och rop) (director/writer: Ingmar Bergman; cinematographer: Sven Nykvist; editor: Siv Lundgren; cast: Harriet Andersson (Agnes), Kari Sylwan (Anna), Ingrid Thulin (Karin), Liv Ullmann (Maria), Anders Ek (Isak, the priest), Inga Gill (Story teller), Erland Josephson (David, the doctor), Henning Moritzen (Joakim, Maria’s husband), Georg Årlin (Fredrik, Karin’s husband); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Lars-Owe Carlberg; Criterion Collection; 1972-Sweden-in Swedish with English subtitles)
“It’s a beautifully photographed but painful film to watch.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It was the first foreign film nominated for a “best picture” Oscar. Ingmar Bergman (“Autumn Sonata”/”Wild Strawberries”/”Fanny and Alexander”) directs a darkly perceptive psychological drama about the human condition that exposes a dysfunctional family and its many unpleasant secrets. It’s a beautifully photographed but painful film to watch, one that is hardly enjoyable and not an easy one to explain through an intellectual theory without putting into play a religious offering that was not overt in the film except in a sublime way. It’s not only superbly acted but visually powerful, as photographed by cinematographer Sven Nykvist. It’s a “woman’s pic,” about their bodies, their deep thoughts and their suffering. It offers an emotionally turbulent look into dying as well as a penetrating look into the female soul, and laments that its dying virgin heroine can’t bring her woeful sisters to understand before it’s too late that life’s true pleasures might only last in the memories that are filled with a nurturing love.

It’s set at the turn-of-the-century in an eighteenth-century remote Swedish manor country house that has the striking blood red interior of a Las Vegas whorehouse. The women occupants all wear formal white dresses except after the death of the dying sister, when they change to black dresses. The unmarried thirtysomething Agnes (Harriet Andersson) has led an empty life and lives alone with Anna (Kari Sylwan), her loyal peasant housekeeper of the last twelve years, and is bedridden and is dying of cancer while riddled with unbearable pain causing her to frequently scream out in agony. She’s visited by her two estranged sisters; the oldest Karin (Ingrid Thulin) is an embittered, sexually repressed, and domineering bitchy woman who is married to a mean-spirited diplomat (Georg Årlin) she hates, and has only come as a sense of duty. The youngest sister, the beautiful but unfeeling, sexually obsessed, and self-absorbed childlike Maria (Liv Ullmann), is married to the lost soul businessman Joakim (Henning Moritzen).

The shallow and indecisive Maria refuses to come to the aid of her husband when he stabs himself because of her infidelity; he survives and stays with her in this loveless marriage. Maria had an affair with the local doctor (Erland Josephson) she seduced when he came over to treat Anna’s young daughter, who later died. In the film’s most ghastly scene, Karin mutilates herself with a shard of glass in her vagina and then insanely smiles at her husband as she smears the blood on her face.

Anna, acting like a Virgin Mary figure, comforts the agonizing Agnes with her breasts when she cries out in pain, which also hints that they could possibly be lovers. Her warmhearted response to suffering is genuine, and is compared with the sisters’ cold and insincere responses and organized religion’s cold and calculated responses to Agnes’s suffering. Bergman showed that the deceptive lives we lead and our blind acceptance of society in order to ensure public approval cannot be compared favorably with the person (Anna) who leads a truthful life that is visionary, touching and compassionate.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”