Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1963)

Winter Light
“If God does not exist, does it matter?”

Bergman has a reputation for making miserable films but I never really found “The Seventh Seal” at all miserable. It was about a loss of faith and about death, certainly, but there was a playfulness about it that leavened the philosophy. Here, though, Bergman’s reputation is well-earned. Tomas (Gunnar Björnstrand) is a widowed priest who no longer believes. He serves in a small and remote community and, as the film opens, is struggling with a viral infection that is making him more liable to honestly tell people what he really thinks about them, including his unwanted suitor, schoolteacher Marta (Ingrid Thulin) and a suicidal fisherman, Jonas (Max von Sydow).

Shot in black and white, this film has a clean, harsh look as the winter light of the title falls both on the snow outside and in the whitened churches in which Tomas officiates. Tomas is suffering and spreads his suffering around and there is little to suggest that, for him, there is any hope of joy now that he has lost both his adored wife and his (self-admittedly) selfish religion. This is the second in a trilogy and so perhaps I need to watch the other parts to get a more rounded sense of where this film sits but, as a standalone film, it was an interesting meditation on how christians cope with a post-Christian world.

For me as an agnostic (though pretty confident) atheist, the question of whether or not there is a god doesn’t matter any more, though it did once but it clearly did for Bergman, and for Tomas and it does have serious consequences for your world view. It just needn’t be so glum as Tomas finds it.

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