Friday, November 22, 2019

Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

One of Bergman's Strongest Films With Substantial Depth


5 Stars; MPAA Rating: Unrated (see rating note)
Director: Ingmar Bergman

Film as Art:
This is not a commercial entertainment film. It is intellectual, perhaps more than some of his others. If viewed superficially as a passive observer it presents a story that comes across as a flat narrative with a partially tragic ending. It has considerable depth in its metaphors, symbolism and underlying themes. That's where its power resides.

Bergman's Upbringing and Background:
Ingmar Bergman's background is important to understanding his films better. He was the son of a very strict Church of Sweden (Lutheran) priest who rose to become the royal chaplain to the Swedish royal court. Through a Glass Darkly continues Bergman's wrestling with the existence of God, and what He is, if He does exist. Bergman doesn't provide answers, but he does provoke questions. It's a theme that pervades other films preceding this one. Most notable is "The Seventh Seal" in which a knight wants confirmation of God's existence when Death comes to claim him, a question Death will not answer. Feeling he has not lead a worthy life, having spent it in futility with great disillusionment in The Crusades, delays Death with a chess game. Without spoiling it, the knight ultimately does accomplish something he feels worthy, and Death ultimately claims him, but without knowing an answer to his question of God's existence. A year prior is "The Virgin Spring" in which the father, whose daughter was robbed (of her fine clothing), raped and murdered, and who has wreaked revenge in killing the three who raped and killed her. Set in medieval Sweden between as it was being Christianized, we see a mix of heathen and early Christian practices. The father ultimately questions how God could allow such a cruel and painful death to his innocent young daughter, and allow him to murder her murderers in revenge.

The Film Title's Biblical Reference:
In "Through a Glass Darkly" its title references the new testament biblical metaphor from First Corinthians 13, the first epistle written by Paul and Sosthenes to the Christians in Corinth. Exact wording depends on translation and interpretation of "glass" as being a glass pane or a metal mirror (and some translations use "mirror"). Either way, what was used as "glass" then is assuredly not what we know to be glass today, less than clear and lacking flat surfaces. Mirrors then were polished metal plates (usually brass) that often came with a sponge containing fine pumice to polish it. They also were not perfectly flat. Looking through a "glass" or at a reflection in a mirror was known to give distorted images lacking fine detail and dimmer than what one would see directly. The "glass" or "mirror" interpretation doesn't matter, as it's the metaphor's meaning that's important. Paul and Sosthenes tell the Corinthians in this chapter that 'love" is the most important among the virtues, overriding all others, and characterizes what it is, but that we cannot know God completely in our worldly existence.

The Film:
The film has a "chamber" cast of only four, ostensibly on a remote island holiday, consisting of a widower father a young teenage son, his married daughter, and the daughter's husband. The tiny cast allows character development in substantial depth and the nature of these characters are not only revealed by their own actions, they are reflected in the dialog of others (hence the film's title). It isn't long before this family of four reveals itself comprised of dysfunctional members, with its dysfunctions amplified by the daughter's schizophrenia. She had very recently been treated but is beginning to relapse with bouts of increasing severity (the specific disease isn't stated but the symptoms are classic schizophrenia). Her expectation with the people she sees and voices she hears, is a coming of God for her with those people and that she must obey them. Ultimately her "vision" of God . . . or a god of some type, or perhaps a demon . . . as imagined in her schizophrenic delusions (interpret this as you will) . . . is revealed at the end, with another revelation of what the father considers God to be in a dialog with his son that immediately follows and ends the film. Bergman's interpretation of the content and meaning of First Corinthians 13 is played out with each of the characters expressing different portions of it. The audience is left to accept or reject it, in whole or in part, each to their own interpretation of God and Love, as they also perceive it for themselves, through a glass, darkly. That God remains "silent" throughout is pervasive of Bergman's films, not answering the questions his characters ask, but leaving his characters to answer those for themselves. The daughter's "revelation" is clearly a schizophrenic delusion, but even in the depths of her disease and psychological breakdown it's clear she also wants her question(s) about the nature of God to be answered.

This is a film, due to its depth, that bears watching more than once, especially for English-speakers that must use the subtitles, the dubbed English dialog track, or both. I recommend using both as their translations from Swedish to English have some differences. I found it easier to comprehend the film with these dialog interpretations combined which give a better sense of the original Swedish dialog's intent and meaning.

Bergman Film Casting (in general):
He spent many of his years directing plays during the autumn, winter and early spring, and directing his films during the theater's off season during the summer. Many of the same actors used in his stage plays were also used in his films, including this one.

MPAA Rating Note:
The MPAA tiered rating system as we know it today did not exist in 1961. Films were evaluated under a severely restrictive "one size fits all" Hays Code, and were issued a serial numbered certificate that would be displayed in the credits if it passed all their censorship criteria. Most theaters would not rent films that failed getting a certificate, and avoided "unrated" films (those not submitted) unless there was considerable critical acclaim and public demand (which did occur, but was rare).Through a Glass Darkly is unrated by the MPAA because it has never been submitted, which should not be a surprise. It was not made for US commercial distribution. Like most foreign films it was generally shown in art houses, and those theaters didn't care if a film was MPAA approved as most of their fare were not. Given widespread knowledge about its content now I doubt it ever will be as it costs $$$ to have the MPAA rate a movie. I would predict a PG-13 rating if submitted today although it's conceivable that it might be granted a badly misguided PG purely on lack of violence, lack of cursing, and its lack of explicit sexual content (with allusion in dialog for a very mature encounter). Its subject matter is intellectually quite mature and would be lost on most younger than about 15-16 years old. Those are the minimum ages in the UK, Finland and Sweden ratings for this movie that have similar but not identical criteria to the current MPAA system.

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