If it achieves nothing else, The Silence, the final installment of Bergman's faith trilogy, is still impressive for making such a simple title work on so many levels. The lack of open communication, be it with God or our fellow man, has informed much of Bergman's oeuvre, from The Seventh Seal to Cries and Whispers, but here each of the layers of silence – permit me this cliché – is deafening.
Even the setup is stark: Ester (Ingrid Thulin), sickly and dying, is on a train with her younger, more attractive sister Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) and Anna's young son Johan (Jörgen Lindström). They stop in a hotel in an unidentified country on the brink of war, where Ester begins to deteriorate. The rest of The Silence is a chronicle of the interactions of these three, or lack thereof.
On one level, there is a literal silence that pervades the film: the first thing we hear is the pounding tick-tock of a clock, which only gets louder when one character cannot catch her breath. The ticking watch is a constant in the film, clearly a symbol for our limited time on this Earth but also of an inability many of us have to think about anything but that mortality. Dialogue is rare and sparse when used.
But even those tiny moments of speech reveal a great deal about these characters in a manner that highlights the importance of communication without being over-expositional. With only a few lines, backed by some of Sven Nykvist's finest photography, we begin to understand the three leads of the film: as tanks roll by in the night and shatter the quiet, we see the threat of war looming ever closer. Anna, the hedonistic one, buries her concerns in sins of the flesh, looking for carnal pleasures to at least distract from reality. Ester, intelligent and frail, looks to words as her last hope; she reads and writes and masturbates with cold, passionless automation.
Neither can find real comfort, as they cannot communicate. Anna has sex with a stranger whom she can't understand due to a language barrier, and whatever connection they have is purely physical and evaporates the moment they pause long enough to say something. Ester, long jealous of her sister's looks and promiscuity, often lurks in the background of the shots in Anna's room. She works as a translator, yet even she cannot understand the native tongue of this tumultuous land. The porter (Jörgen Lindström) brings her food and wine, though he does not understand a word she says.
In between these embittered sisters is Johan, whose equal affection for both his mother and aunt supports the notion that, as with the actress and nurse in Bergman's subsequent Persona, the two are merely reflections of the same person and not really sisters at all. In Freudian lingo, Anna is the Body, or Id, while Ester is the Mind, more specifically the Superego.
But Johan is not concerned about such things, for he is young. The other characters, building from Thomas' rejection of God in Winter Light, have abandoned Him, which accounts for their inability to connect with anyone else: if God is real and we are all connected through a higher power, then a rejection of that power isolates us from one another. In His absence, even a translator cannot understand the language of what appears to be a major European country, and why that country is on the brink of collapsing into insurrection.
In the previous installments of the trilogy, the characters prayed to God and asked to know He was there. In Winter Light, Thomas does not like the answer He gave, and so he rejects Him. In The Silence, we have angered God into leaving us, and now people can only pray for their own self-interest, empty pleas asked with full knowledge of their futility. Ester prays not for communication, nor strength, but merely to make it home to die to give her some antiquated notion of dignity.
Johan does not know that God no longer answers us, is too young to possibly comprehend this, and therefore he keeps his faith. As a result, he is the only character who can freely speak with anyone. Not only the bridge between his relatives, he befriends the porter and even stumbles across a traveling troupe of dwarfs who welcome him and dress him in their costumes. It is Johan who ends this nightmarish trip through Bergman's idea of Hell with an element of hope: he and his mother leave Ester to die – though Johan thinks they'll be back – and take another train out of the country. Ester gives him a letter that contains a message of spiritual hope. It inspires Anna to open the window to let it rain on her face (a baptism), and it gives the boy something to treasure, and hopefully something that will keep his faith alive through adulthood.
What makes The Silence so interesting to me, other than its metaphorical weight and flawless direction of course, is that it is truly the link between the theological Bergman of old and the psychological Bergman who had his greatest successes ahead of him. Perhaps this is nerdy of me, but I got genuine goosebumps watching the religious worries of the previous two films melt into the personal quandaries that would inform masterpieces like Cries and Whispers and Scenes From a Marriage. Even the idea of two characters playing contrasting foils of the same person would be fleshed out to an even greater degree with his next film and magnum opus, Persona.
For all its frightening implications, The Silence is not the most daring nor bleak of the trilogy, as the entire thing is merely the fallout from the themes of Winter Light. But it also, in a much subtler way than in Through a Glass Darkly, reaffirms the existence of God. Though Bergman identified as an atheist due to his strict upbringing under his Lutheran father, he recognizes the need for mankind to have something to answer to, even if we conjure that something from our imaginations. Bergman certainly doesn't believe in the canonical definition of God, but few directors have ever made as many films that so thoroughly (and believably) stress the importance of faith in the secular world. The fact that they're so well-acted and shot almost seems like mere icing on the cake.