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Sweden 1973
Directed by
Ingmar Bergman
91 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Cries And Whispers

Bergman was at the height of his fame when he made Cries And Whispers, one of his most excoriating yet also most elegant films.

Despite appearances more theatrical than realistic, the film largely takes place in a couple of rooms in a well-appointed manor near Stockholm at the end of the 19th century. Bergman regulars Liv Ullmam,  Ingrid Thulin and Harriet Andersson play three adult sisters. Maria (Ullman) and  Karin (Thulin) have come to be by the side of Agnes (Andersson) who is dying of cancer (a strikingly embodied by Andersson), an occasion which unsurprisingly, brings memories and reflections to the surface. 

The film cuts between the present and the past (sometimes helped out by an unidentified narrator) to build a portrait of the two sisters who are each in their own way self-interested and incapable of empathy.  Indeed the only character who is not emotionally diconnected  is Agnes’s housekeeper, Anna (Kari Sylwan), with whom she has a very close relationship.

Bergman has said of Cries And Whispers: “It’s the same old film every time. The same actors. The same scenes, The same problems. The only thing is that we’re older”.  One couldn’t disagree with this and one can’t help but feel that the critical enthusiasm for itwas a reflection of Bergman’s auteurial standing than its real merits, as at  times, such as a confrontation between Maria and her former lover (Erlund Josephson), a pathetic suicide attempt by Maria’s husband (Henning Moritzer) or the extreme close-ups of the women crying out with soul-rending angst, the overwrought nature of the proceedings approaches the parodic.

The film is strongest in its quieter moments such as when Bergman captures the deadness of haute bourgeois life in Karin’s mask of elegant composure and her husband’s self satisfaction as they dine, or discovers real love in the relationship between Agnes and Anna who is herself grieving the loss of a child.  

Cries And Whispers is a beautifully mounted film, the pervasive red being Bergman’s symbolic emblem for  the soul (as well, of course, standing for "the female") and as an representation of existential isolation, is in this respect the film is magnificent (Sven Nykvist won an Oscar for his cinematography). The film ends with the recreation of an extract from Agnes's diary in which she recalls happier times for the four women, a sequence which Bergman follows with a title on a red background "and so the cries and whispers die away". Given that Agnes has died in agonizing pain whether this is meant as consolation or ironic observation is a matter for interpretation.

A little leaner and Cries And Whispers could have been a masterpiece of sorrow but as is, it is an assured reworking of Bergman's familiar themes.




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