FANNY AND ALEXANDER (Fanny Och Alexander) (director/writer: Ingmar Bergman; cinematographer: Sven Nykvist; editor: Sylvia Ingemarsson; music: Daniel Bell; cast: Bertil Guve (Alexander), Pernilla Alwin (Fanny), Ewa Fröling (Emilie), Jan Malmsjo (Edvard Vergerus), Gunn Wallgren (Helene Ekdahl), Jalle Kulle (Gustav Ekdahl), Pernilla Wallgren (Maj), Erland Josephson (Isak Jacobi), Allan Edwall (Oscar Ekdahl), Mona Malm (Alma Ekdahl), Boerje Ahlstedt (Carl Ekdahl), Christina Schollin (Lydia), Stina Ekblad (Ishmael), Harriet Andersson (Justina) Mats Bergman (Aron Retzinsky); Runtime: 188; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Jörn Donner; Criterion Collection; 1982-Sweden-in Swedish with English subtitles)
“Immensely pleasurable.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A stunningly sumptuous period piece that’s also a compelling family drama with flashes of the supernatural that evokes bittersweet childhood memories, desires and fears. It was made for Swedish television, where it runs uncut for 300 minutes. In the abbreviated theater version of 188 minutes, the one I reviewed, Ingmar Bergman (“Autumn Sonata”/”Wild Strawberries”/”Cries and Whispers”) shoots for the autobiographical as he lets go of hurtful personal experiences that have plagued him for his entire life (the film’s parson is a reminder of his own Lutheran clergy father). This was supposedly to be the great director’s swan song and he refused to hold back; it turns out to be one of his most optimistic films and was not his swan song, as he continued to make television movies.

It’s set at the turn-of-the-last-century; the story is seen through the eyes of the curious but shy ten-year-old Alexander (Bertil Guve) and his pretty and demure eight-year-old sister Fanny (Pernilla Alwin). Their widowed well-to-do grandmother Helena Ekdahl (Gunn Wallgren), with a theatrical background, is the imperious matriarch of the clan and lives in splendor in Uppsala with many servants. The father of the children is Helena’s kind-hearted oldest son, Oscar (Allan Edwall), a theater manager and actor with his star actress wife Emilie (Ewa Froling). The widow’s other grown children are the besotted and in debt college science professor, Carl (Borje Ahlstedt), who is married to a German woman named Lydia (Christina Schollin). The other son is the oversexed buffoonish restaurant owner Gustav (Jarl Kulle) and his agreeable wife Alma (Mona Malm). Gustav’s wife knows that her hubby has made the nursemaid Maj (Pernilla Wallgren) his mistress, but takes a liberal view of the situation.

Things get on the way with a festive Christmas Eve family celebration in Grandma’s mansion., in 1907, where the highlight is a jubilant Gustav entering the reception with a giant flaming bowl of punch. Soon afterwards Oscar takes ill and dies. At the funeral procession Alexander turns bitter and utters cock, piss, fart, and shit. It’s an omen of the darkness to come into the child’s life, as his misguided mother is comforted by the haughty puritanical Bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjö) presiding at the funeral and will later marry the severe man. Forced to live in the Bishop’s bare and loveless household, a resentful Alexander receives endless lectures from the Bishop about his behavior and is harshly caned for telling lies such as the one of how the Bishop locked his former wife and kids in a room and starved them to death. When Emilie realizes she married a monster, she can’t get out of the marriage as the Bishop refuses to grant her a divorce. An elderly Jew named Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson), an antique dealer and moneylender and the former lover of Alexander’s grandmother and friend of the family, rescues the children who are locked in the nursery room by buying a hope chest from the Bishop and smuggling the children out in the chest. He then brings them to his exotic store/apartment where the children can breath again in a weird but joyous artistic setting. Isak’s nephew Aron (Mats Bergman) makes puppets and the once again curious child stumbles upon them in the dark and his sense of imagination is rekindled. In a folklore type of resolution, the young boy comes of age through seeing ghosts and through the assistance of Isak’s other nephew, the black magic practitioner Ismael (Stina Ekblad), as the wicked stepfather gets his comeuppance in a shocking dreamlike send up in flames.

Sven Nykvist captures the many mood shifts with his active camera and shoots some fine glowing images. The acting is first-class. The story is slow moving and at times uneven, but holds together to be emotionally uplifting, packs a sensuous punch and is immensely pleasurable. This is Bergman at the top of his game.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”