In our conversation about March’s Movie of the Month, 1957’s The Seventh Seal, James pointed out that the film’s central struggle with faith in God & acceptance of death would over time become a recurring theme for its director, Ingmar Bergman. He said the film “tackles one of the deepest and most disturbing questions of existence: Why, in the face of so much evil, does God remain silent? The Silence of God is a theme Bergman would explore in later films like Through a Glass Darkly and Cries & Whispers but in those films he found more nuanced ways to get his message across. In The Seventh Seal, by contrast, Bergman strips away everything in the story that doesn’t embellish the allegory, making it feel almost like a sermon. And as with most sermons, the effect the film has on you depends greatly on if you are on board with its message.” Although James is right that The Seventh Seal does have the feeling of a sermon in the conviction of its central message, it’s somewhat strange that such an assertive message would be a question: Why does God remain silent? The questioning of one’s faith is such an uneasy, intangible theme that it’s a peculiar one to repetitively, emphatically broadcast from a cinematic pulpit.
It turns out that Bergman was so vocal about the question of faith & God’s silence because it was a struggle he experienced personally over the course of his young life. Raised as the son of a Lutheran minister (who at one time served as chaplain to the King of Sweden), religious faith was exceedingly important to Bergman’s upbringing. As he grew into his own, he gradually shed the piety of his youth, but it was a troubled transition. As religious discussion was a significant aspect of his upbringing, due to his father’s profession, Bergman also openly & frequently discussed his own questioning & eventual disregard of his faith in his own profession: filmmaking. The themes of God’s silence in the face of intense suffering and the indifference of death were repeated in his work long after The Seventh Seal. The most thorough exploration of this theme, however, came very soon after in what is commonly known as his Trilogy of Faith.
The unlikely trio of Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence weren’t initially conceived as a spiritual trilogy, but as they were released consecutively and each share a similar philosophical exploration of God’s absence, even Bergman himself later conceded their significance as a set. As James already explained, his modes of religious exploration would become subtler in these post-Seventh Seal efforts, but not by much. They are still fairly straight-forward in their intent, just more abstract in their tactics. Bergman’s particular brand of religious self-doubt still functioned as honest, agnostic sermons in the Trilogy of Faith, but the question became even more hurtful and muddled as the implications of its consequences became more widespread.
Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
Although Bergman’s message may have been more understated in his Trilogy of Faith films than in The Seventh Seal, all films in the trio do share the Movie of the Month’s compact, intentionally artificial staging. Working with small casts & spatially limited settings, Bergman gives his explorations of religious doubt the figurative severity of a staged play, where images & dialogue feel grandly symbolic due to their isolation. Through a Glass Darkly, my personal favorite in the trilogy, is the most constricted of all, limiting the entire physical scope of the film to the interactions of four family members retreating on a small island. One character even refers to the intensity of this isolation (as well as a larger, less tangible sense of confinement) directly, saying, “I wonder if everybody feels caged in. You in your cage. I in mine. Each in his own little cube. Everybody.” Besides the caged-in feeling, the religious musings, and inclusion of Max Von Sydow, the movie also depicts a staged play within the film, just as The Seventh Seal noted its own artificiality by including the traveling performances of Jof & Mia.
The main difference between the two films is that Jof & Mia’s familial love were shown as a form of Earthly divinity, an admirable way to confront life & death. In Through a Glass Darkly, familial love is also divine, but in a decidedly twisted way that suggests that incest can “burst reality open” and create a direct path to God. Indeed, God does make an appearance of sorts in the film, but his presence is even more unsatisfying that his silence. He appears as a grotesque display that calls into question his very existence and the division of reality & divinity as well as anxiety-caused mania & good mental health. If the Trilogy of Faith is Bergman shouting a message of self-doubt from a cinematic pulpit, Through a Glass Darkly is the best on-film representation of that doubt, as it leaves so many questions intentionally unanswered.
Winter Light (1962)
Speaking of pulpits, Winter Light begins & ends with sermons in the church of a seemingly desolate community. If Bergman’s cinematic explorations of his religious doubt are to be understood as a sort of therapy in which he sheds the baggage of his son of a preacher upbringing on film, you can’t get much closer to a direct statement than Winter Light. Hell, this sample prayer for the film asks the questions about as directly as you can: “God, why have you created me so eternally dissatisfied? So frightened so bitter? Why must I realize how wretched I am? Why must I suffer so hellishly for my insignificance?” In the face of these questions God, of course, remains silent. Winter Light is the only film in the trilogy that directly references the phrase “God’s silence” and it’s that blunt attitude that makes it so arresting.
The insular nature of the small community, the Max Von Sydow role, and the philosophical fretting all connect Winter Light with The Seventh Seal & Through a Glass Darkly, but it’s the staged performance within the film that distinguishes it. The subversion here is that the staged performance is the protagonist pastor’s sermons. The rituals of performing his duties as pastor have become an empty performance to the protagonist, who has become removed from his closeness to God. When patrons ask him to quell their own concerns of faith, he only reinforces them, saying that the complete absence of God makes more sense than his existence because man’s cruelty would need no explanation. There’s a directness to these meditations that are somewhat obfuscated in Bergman’s other cinematic questions of faith, as reflected in an extensive scene where a character reads a letter directly into the camera, making intense eye contact with the viewer as she speaks. We can also feel Bergman’s gaze from the other side of the camera through much of the film, as if he was speaking directly to us about his doubts and his eventual agnosticism. This directness is almost entirely absent in the final, most elusive film in the Trilogy of Faith, The Silence.
The Silence (1963)
The most intentionally obfuscated title in the trilogy, The Silence feels like Bergman finally letting go of his nervous handwringing over shedding his faith in God and breaking free to explore the questions raised by the consequences of that divine absence: If there is no God, then what is the point of morality? In fact, what is the point of anything? Stripping the dialogue & setting down to a barebones production, The Silence, of course, raises these questions with no intent to answer them. It’s tempting to read into the film’s hotel setting as a metaphor for our temporary stay in the world or a mother’s indifference toward her son as a metaphor for God’s silence or the two sisters’ clashing personalities as representative of different basic human attributes, like youth & old age or piousness & sensuality, but it’s unclear specifically what Bergman meant to say through these individual elements or if he had anything specific to say at all.
In Through a Glass Darkly, the staged play within the film resulted in the uncomfortable unearthing of a familial conflict between a father & his children. In Winter Light, the staged play was a pastor treating his sermons like a pointless ritual, the words having lost their meaning, which in a way was Bergman himself unearthing a familial conflict with his own father. In The Silence, a central character goes to see a staged play as well, but is distracted by a couple having public sex in the theater seats. The meaning of the play takes a backseat role to a completely different kind of performance, one concerned with more immediate, bodily pleasures. Although Bergman had explored the self-doubt of faith before in The Seventh Seal and he would again in titles like Cries & Whispers, the Trilogy of Faith feels like he is not only shedding the importance of religious faith in his personal life, but also in his work. At first he struggles with big, philosophical questions about God & family, but by the time he reached The Silence it felt like he had broken free of those concerns. They were no longer his sole mental occupation, but rather a doorway that opened him up to other big questions, liked the ones asked about personal identity in the brilliantly strange Persona. Freed from the weight of religious fretting, Bergman was able to expand the scope of his films exponentially, but it took many titles released over several decades to get there and the work he put in to achieve that freedom was in compelling in its own right, including some of most accomplished films of his career, like Through a Glass Darkly and The Seventh Seal.
For more on March’s Movie of the Month, 1957’s The Seventh Seal, visit our Swampchat discussion of the film, and explorations of its thematic similarities with Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, and its surprising differences with Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death.