Ingmar Bergman’s self-proclaimed swan song, 1982’s Fanny and Alexander, is another of his autobiographical fantasies written on a larger than usual scale. The film weaves together the Bergman themes of God and sex, love and death. A fascinating work, it seems choppy in parts, no doubt because it’s been edited down from a five-hour Swedish television miniseries to this three-hour-long theatrical version. But even in truncated form it’s a powerful film, filled with the simmering intensity of an old master at the peak of his powers.
The story begins in 1907 on Christmas Eve with a gathering of the Ekdahl family, which includes the matriarchal Helena, her three grown sons and their wives, and her two grandchildren, 10-year-old Alexander and his 8-year-old sister Fanny. The opening setpiece, a long family dinner, suggests a cozy serenity not usually depicted by Bergman. One of Helena’s sons, Gustav, is so robustly good-natured that his lecherousness seems more amusing than appalling, while another, Oscar, amuses the children by extinguishing candles with his flatulence. It seems to be a happy, even joyous family. But this being a Bergman film, we know that angst lurks behind closed doors and unhappiness is at the heart of the future.
Fanny and Alexander’s parents are actors, and the children are raised in the liberal milieu of bourgeois artists. All this changes when the father dies and the mother, in a vulnerable state, marries a hidebound Lutheran bishop, a man whose self-righteousness is unblemished by doubt and whose temperament is hostile to things of the imagination.
Once this ghastly stepfather enters the picture, the story takes a sharp turn into the realm of gothic horror. The home Fanny and Alexander enter when their mother moves in with the bishop is a mirror opposite of the plush and friendly one they’ve known. It’s a cold fortress with its foreboding, bare stone walls and the sour presence of the bishop’s relatives and servants. For Bergman, whose father was a pastor, the religious zealot is the enemy of the imaginative life.
When Alexander tells his schoolmates that he’s been sold to a traveling circus and is going to be picked up by a group of acrobats, the bishop punishes him for the sin of lying. When he makes up a story about the bishop being responsible for the death of his two young daughters by a previous marriage, the punishment becomes more brutal, and the film painful to watch.
Like most Bergman films, Fanny and Alexander (and one should mention that Fanny is such a minor character that one wonders how she made it into the film’s title) is open to interpretation but makes the most sense when viewed as a realistic film imbued with Alexander’s fantasy life. This would explain the recurring appearance of his dead father’s ghost, the way he and his sister escape the bishop’s home through an act of magic, and the thoroughly bizarre sequence in the mysterious shop of a Jewish antique dealer.
In Swedish with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Nov. 1, at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].