Much ado has made of Ingmar Bergman's loose trilogy of films that pushed him into the 60s and away from the Baroque expressionism of his early masterpieces into the more personal filmmaker that earned him his legacy. Yes, his two most identifiable films are likely The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, but as a whole we remember Bergman for his more minimalistic works. Through a Glass Darkly, the first of the so-called "Spider Trilogy" (also known as the Silence of God trilogy and the Faith trilogy), is the first example of his transformation into a more introspective filmmaker, and it remains important on that basis even if the film itself has not aged well.
Constructed as a chamber play, Through a Glass Darkly follows a family of 3 men and one woman over the course of 24 hours. The woman, Kårin (Harriet Andersson) has recently been released from an asylum and suffers from an unnamed condition, most likely schizophrenia. Her husband Martin (Max von Sydow) is a doctor who is kind and supportive of his wife but knows he can do nothing to cure her. Meanwhile her father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a failed novelist, secretly documents his daughter's illness for his next work. Finally, Minus (Lars Passgård), Kårin's younger brother, must deal with sexual awakening and disturbing feelings for his sister.
From these linked storylines comes a story of isolation, guilt, disappointment and spiritual longing. From the start we see a disconnect between the family; David has been abroad for some time and he gives out tacky presents to his children, who are visibly upset that he thought this meaningless display would impress them. Minus puts on a play that openly mocks his father's work and his aloofness. Martin feels utterly hopeless that he cannot do anything for his wife. That night, Kårin wakes up and goes up to the attic, where she has an episode that leaves her even more fragile.
Kårin's madness leads her to start flirting with Minus, who doesn't know how to respond. Eventually she corners him in the hull of a wrecked ship and it's strongly implied that they have sex (though I've heard an interpretation or two that says Minus is actually a homosexual). We see Minus' internal anguish over his feelings and his utter confusion at how to deal with these new developments. Before all of this, Kårin discovers her father's diary documenting her madness and learns that she'll never be rid of it. Combined with a moment of composure following her seduction of her brother, she asks to return to the hospital for her own good.
The final moments are certainly the most famous of the film, and one of the more memorable scenes I've seen in my (admittedly limited) exposure to Bergman: a helicopter flies overhead and lands to take Kårin back to the asylum, and she goes absolutely mad. She tells her family that she saw God, a "stone-faced spider" who tried to "penetrate" her. When "He" couldn't, the spider crawled up a wall. It leaves her utterly devastated: she spent the whole time waiting for God and, in her mind, was found unworthy. After spending 90 minutes searching for the light of heaven, she puts on sunglasses to block out the light and surrenders to the medics.
That the film continues after this moment with a concluding moment of facile spiritual discussion between David and Minus, in which Minus voices his torment to his father. David, finally concerned about the children to whom he's never shown devotion, reaches out to his son, comforting him with the notion that perhaps God and love are the same thing. It's an obvious moment of the Father finally speaking to the children, and the last line of the film comes from a suddenly reverent Minus: "Papa spoke to me." Even if it wasn't a sappy way to equate David's moment with his son as a connection between God and humans, it still brings down the shattering power of Kårin's final scene.
In his essay for the Criterion DVD, Peter Matthews offers an interpretation of God as a spider: to him, Bergman is saying "the pious consolations of the past no longer suffice in the era of Auschwitz and the atomic bomb." This film and its resultant "trilogy" would examine Bergman's spiritual doubt in the face of such travesties, and this doubt forms an endlessly complex existential drama that is not handled quite properly in this installment. However, the confessional tone of the film, particularly Bergman's harsh appraisal of David's--and therefore his own--art (perhaps he saw the same exploitative side in himself as he did in David) redeems the film. Supposedly Bergman himself came to view his ending as facile and tacked-on, and his subsequent entries in the trilogy reflect more of Kårin's nihilism than the too-cheap message of hope.
What struck me from the start was the tiny island where Bergman filmed the movie. Rocky landscapes and a general feeling of isolation do more to establish the mood of the story than any acting ever could. The film cemented Bergman's collaboration with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, whose stark and realistic photography contrasts beautifully with the existential and symbolist drama of the story. Bergman and Nykvist would continue to work together for the rest of their lives (Nykvist died before Bergman made his final film, Saraband), and the two form arguably the most famous and most rewarding director-cinematographer team in film history. Here, Nykvist uses the crags and bleak sea surrounding the island to underline each character's emotional isolation and their hardened outlook towards God.
So what do we have in the end? A good film, certainly, one that even has hints of greatness. Yet that greatness is tempered by moments of heavy-handedness and outdated notions of mental illness. Through a Glass Darkly is the third Bergman film I've seen (the other two being The Seventh Seal and Scenes From a Marriage), and it's certainly the least of these three, but I can also see it building the bridge between Seventh Seal and Scenes. I'm glad I watched it, and it's left me with a burning desire to move straight into the other two films of the trilogy, but this is one of those classics worth it more for historic or artistic importance than genuine brilliance.