Cries and Whispers (Sweden, 1972)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Humanity's obsession with death has lasted for as long as men and women have recognized their mortality. Countless philosophers and theologians have devoted a lifetime's work to questions of life and death without reaching satisfactory conclusions. And, despite all of our current technology, we are no closer to an undisputable truth than Shakespeare was when he referred to death as "the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns." So, in addressing his private concerns about the last act of life, director Ingmar Bergman merely wrote another chapter in a book that will not end until the human race has become extinct.

Throughout his illustrious career, Bergman has used the medium of film to exorcise his personal demons, grapple with the questions that trouble his mind, and assuage the guilt that has been a foundation of his life since childhood. In essence, for Bergman, film is therapy. Fortunately, the issues that trouble him have broad-based appeal, which explains why the best of his films have meaning for anyone possessing the patience to sit through them. Most of Bergman's films are slowly paced (or, as Icelandic director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson put it, "Bergman is boring"), but they pack enormous power for anyone willing to give himself or herself over to the Swedish filmmaker's unique rhythms.

Death is a subject to which Bergman has repeatedly returned throughout his career. Like a person probing at a sore tooth with his tongue, Bergman cannot leave the area alone. There are those, myself included, who argue that Cries and Whispers is Bergman's most accomplished film (others will stump for The Seventh Seal, Persona, or Fanny and Alexander). It is certainly his bleakest. The film is dark, brooding, and harrowing - viewing it is not an activity that should be undertaken lightly. Watch Cries and Whispers when your mind and soul are ready to be pummeled. In opening up this corner of his mind, Bergman refuses to spare us.

The process of dying is not only the last stage we go through in this life, but often the most traumatic. For most people, death takes time. To be sure, there are some who expire suddenly and unexpectedly, but, in general, death is gradual. And, during those last days, the dying individual will experience moments of great clarity revealing transcendent beauty, and times of bleakness staring into the black maw of eternity. Ultimately, no matter how many friends and loved ones may be by our side, the last step must be undertaken alone. "To be or not to be?" is only an ephemeral question. The final answer is unalterable.

Cries and Whispers concerns the death of Agnes (Harriet Andersson), a young woman who has been stricken with some form of cancer. When the film opens, the disease is greedily eating away at her insides, causing moments of tremendous agony. At times, she can barely breathe. On other occasions, she awakens from sleep crying out in pain, begging for surcease. There are respites, as well - times when she can find passing enjoyment in simple things, like a walk outside or a sip of water. During her last days, she is cared for by her faithful maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan), and her sisters, Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann).

The film's approach is not linear. Through the use of flashbacks, dream sequences, and enactments of journal excerpts, the time line becomes muddled. While the main story focuses upon Agnes' death, the forays into the past concern Anna, Karin, and Maria, giving us greater insight into these three women, showing incidents from their lives that explain why they react as they do when faced with a stricken woman on her deathbed. Anna is the only one capable of comforting Agnes, offering her the consolation of warm, naked flesh as she allows Agnes to pillow her head on her breasts. Karin and Maria are rather horrific individuals who keep their distance. Karin is a pillar of ice; Maria's self-centeredness mutes her ability to care for her sister.

For Karin, human contact is anathema. Her refrain, uttered frequently, is "don't touch me." Her self-loathing is equaled only by her disgust with others. In a flashback, we see her wound herself between her thighs then smear blood on her face rather than perform her marital duties. And when Maria attempts to reach out to Karin in friendship, the offer is spurned with a venomous declaration of hatred. For her part, Maria is little better. Her disdain for others is apparent. She flaunts her affairs in front of her husband, provoking him to attempt suicide (after he has stabbed himself, he calls out to her for help, but she ignores him). While Agnes lies dying, Maria pursues the doctor, intending to renew an affair with him. She has grown manipulative and calculating, as the doctor notes in a monologue during which he describes the minute changes that have come over her features since he first met her and was enchanted by her beauty.

Of Agnes' background, we know little. She writes a few notes in her journal, but they offer little insight into who Agnes was before she ended up in her sickbed. She certainly appears to be more of an innocent than her sisters. Anna, meanwhile, is shown to be kind, faithful, and devout. She prays regularly, asking God to look after her dead daughter, and is the only one in the household who shows genuine compassion for Agnes. She cradles the dying woman in her arms. The sisters keep their distance.

There is a fine tradition in American cinema that the victims of terminal diseases become increasingly beautiful and serene as the moment of their expiration approaches. Bergman offers no such false comfort here. Those who have seen a loved one die of cancer know that it is a gut-wrenchingly painful experience. Harriet Andersson re-creates it here with a performance that is so powerful that we feel like intruders watching it. She screams, whimpers, begs, and cries. She craves death and fears it. And she most definitely does not look beautiful. Her features are ravaged. Her hair hangs limply and her face shines with perspiration. Ego-free performances like this are few and far between these days, and almost never to be found in Hollywood.

The other three members of the primary cast are equally as good. As Karin, Ingrid Thulin radiates icy cruelty - the kind of rigid inflexibility and aversion to intimacy that can only come from being irreparably emotionally wounded. The most harrowing scenes in the film are those of Agnes suffering on her deathbed; the most chilling occurs when Karin pronounces her hatred of Maria. Liv Ullmann, a Bergman "regular", uses mostly subtle cues to indicate her character's emotional corruption. Finally, there's Kari Sylwan, who plays Anna like an Earth mother. While it is left open whether there was a lesbian relationship between Agnes and Anna, the maid is the only one to show affection for the dying woman in her final hours.

One name often mentioned in conjunction with Bergman is that of director of photography Sven Nyqvist. Cries and Whispers represents one of two cinematography Oscars won by Nyqvist (the second one was for another Bergman film, Fanny and Alexander). This film has a very specific look which is critical to setting the mood. Crimson abounds. Red is everywhere, from the drapery, walls, and carpeting to the color that suffuses the screen when a transition is made to a flashback. The natural associations one makes with this color, especially in a story like this, are of sin and blood, which is what Bergman intended. In Peter Cowie's liner notes to the DVD, Bergman is quoted as saying, "All my films can be thought of in terms of black and white except for Cries and Whispers. In the screenplay, it says that red represents for me the interior of the soul."

As an avowed agnostic, Bergman openly admits that he does not know what waits on the other side of life. However, one can infer from his films that he is envious of those whose simple faith allows them to accept the existence of a better afterlife, rather than constantly puzzling over the uncertainty. This is evident in Cries and Whispers, where Anna, the individual with the deepest, most pure faith, is the kindest and most serene of the characters. Despite having lost her only child, she is gentle and accepting, not frigid like Karin or vain like Maria.

Like many powerful films, Cries and Whispers can be difficult to endure. I would place it in the same category as recent movies like The Sweet Hereafter, The War Zone, and Requiem for a Dream. I cannot conceive of anyone watching this film as light (or even serious) entertainment. That word does not apply. In many of Bergman's movies, narrative is an afterthought. That is particularly true of Cries and Whispers, where even the director's penchant for allegory has been set aside. Dreamlike and surreal, this movie impacts directly upon the soul, not the mind. Images and the disquieting feelings they engender linger long after the movie's 90 minutes have elapsed. In order to understand why Cries and Whispers is a great film, it must be experienced, not merely watched.

Cries and Whispers (Sweden, 1972)

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
U.S. Distributor: New World Pictures
Ranked #73 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:31
U.S. Release Date: 1972-12-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Mature Themes, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Swedish
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1