Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly remains the weakest film I've yet seen of the director's filmography, which is less a reflection on that movie's quality than the overall brilliance of the rest of them. But that film has a lasting importance -- and a particular relevance to this film -- as the first installment of the Spider trilogy, Bergman's most intimate handling of his struggles with faith. Though there are no narrative and indeed only scant symbolic ties between the previous installment and this second act, Winter Light picks up Kårin's epiphany where it left off and moves forward in time, immersing us in a world of madness.
The first thing that you notice about this film is its stark, realistic photography. Bergman fans of course know this look all too well, but Winter Light marks the first time Bergman and Nykvist completely switched to this style. Through a Glass Darkly pushed the director away from the outright expressionism of such early masterpieces as Wild Strawberries, but there were still moments that hearkened back to the old way of shooting -- the rocky backdrop in particular calls to mind the craggy, intimidating shores of The Seventh Seal. But Winter Light lives up to its name: it's bright, but cold, unfeeling. We see extensive use of the close-ups that would form the bedrock of Nykvist's legacy, probing the characters hard exteriors for any glimpse of emotion or passion. Much of the film takes place in small rooms, only compounding the closed-in feel.
Filling the role of the wayward believer is Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand), a parish priest who delivers his sermons without conviction before a dwindling congregation who themselves are so bored that they only donate spare change. When a young fisherman, Jonas (Max von Sydow), meets with him after the service to discuss his growing despair, the priest dismisses him, sure that he cannot help the lad. Tomas' lover, Märta (Ingrid Thulin), arrives and criticizes his dismissal of Jonas. She gives him a letter, and departs as quickly as she came. As Tomas reads the letter, Bergman treats us to a nearly six-minute unbroken take of a close-up on Märta as she reads the contents aloud. It's practically Ozu-like, and just like Ozu, it's beautiful in its simplicity.
Jonas returns, desperate for guidance. At a loss, Tomas wings it and tells the man of his own experience with God and his time serving as a chaplain in the Spanish Civil War: the priest believed in a benevolent, loving God, but witnessing the various atrocities of wartime shattered his faith. He tells the young man that he saw God for what He really was: "A spider, a monster," echoing Kårin's mad epiphany. In the previous film, the image of God as a spider seemed little more than the hallucination of someone who had truly slipped into insanity; here, that is the cold reality, and to shy away from it, Tomas clings to his old image, the accepted image, of God to keep him together. Here, the two manifestations of Bergman's God have inverted, and the effect is even more unsettling. He then looks the boy in the eye and tells him that the only way to look upon the amorality of the human condition is to deny God, for without Him you no longer need to justify His actions. Jonas leaves dejected, and Tomas turns to face the giant crucifix in the room and declares himself "free."
But freedom offers no solace for the increasingly insular Tomas, and his relationship with Märta does not improve (though she herself is ecstatic about her lover's rejection of God). When she tries to speak to him, he launches into a verbal assault, telling her all the reasons why he does not care for her, ultimately comparing her unfavorably to his late wife. He must also drive out to Jonas' home when the man kills himself after his meeting with the priest. As uncomfortable as Bergman's unyielding close-ups can be, the long shots of Tomas driving to the scene and helping the police to cover the body are utterly chilling, an effect magnified by the near-silence.
Tomas and Märta return to the church for the next service, and find only the organist, Fredrik, and sexton, Algot. Fredrik reveals that Tomas isn't the only broken man in the church when he warns Märta to leave this desolate town before her dreams are crushed like everyone else's. Meanwhile, Algot speaks to the priest about the Passion, and wonders why so many focus on the violence inflicted upon Jesus as terrible torture and not God's silence when His son begged for Him on the cross. Tomas agrees that God's seeming rejection would be far more painful. Algot also mentions the betrayal of the disciples, subtly drawing a connection between their rejection of God and Jesus and Tomas'.
Every Bergman film seems to have, amongst the beautiful and evocative images and dialogue, one scene that sears itself into your memory forever. Usually the moment comes at the end, and here is no exception: after these revealing conversations, Tomas stands at the pulpit and begins his sermon to an empty room. The film earlier suggested a distance between the priest and his parishioners due to the orthodoxy of their practices, but that dogma has at last fully alienated the two groups instead of melding them. As Tomas has rejected God, he is now truly alone in the world.
Winter Light is the director's personal favorite of his works, and it's certainly one of the most daring films he's made short of Persona. Bergman's earlier spiritual forays ended with some sort of reaffirmation, if not necessarily of God then of the spark of the human spirit. But Winter Light ends in a flux: Tomas has flatly rejected God, and it seems to have brought him closer to despair instead of ridding him of his spiritual quandaries. The dialogue about God's silence during Jesus' suffering is particularly telling, and I don't think I deserve kudos for speculating that, just as this film extrapolated upon the imagery of God as a spider, the final installment of the trilogy -- named, wouldn't you know it, The Silence -- will likewise expand upon this. I've never seen a film take so bold a stance on religion, at least not one made by someone who isn't a borderline sociopath on YouTube. With the usual round of excellent acting, stark and beautiful imagery and endlessly layered dialogue, Winter Light stands as one of the great and boldest achievements from a director with perhaps the most daring catalogue of any major filmmaker in history.