“Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection.”
91 minutes to be exact. If Cries and Whispers is not a perfect film, I do not know what is and what will be.
Cries and Whispers (Viskningar och rop) has long been touted as Ingmar Bergman’s towering masterpiece. Automatically, I had really high expectations from the film. It easily shattered those expectations because it was an immaculate experience untainted by the mundane and the pedestrian. Forgive me but I had expectations as a human and I never expected to relish something created by a god.
I understand that Cries and Whispers was born from one of Bergman’s recurring dreams. Indeed it felt like a dream – harrowing and haunting. However, it was more than a dream. It was filled with love, passion, betrayal and death – pieces that constitute what we call life.
In translating his dream into the celluloid medium, Bergman used his mastery in all aspects of film making. The interplay between the costume design, art direction and cinematography is so direct yet delicate that these three almost made the whole film. Of course, Cries and Whispers gave more.
The costume was used a cinematic tool in the final scene between Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin). They were talking about their newfound friendship while deep inside, they resented each other. Their veils were strategically positioned. Language might be one thing but paralanguage might be something else.
A good example of the art direction serving the purpose of the film was the permeating crimson motif. As everyone knows, red is a color that elicits a lot of emotions – both synergistic and antagonistic. Even devoid of its structuralist origins, the red motif captivated me as a viewer. It was eye-candy and I loved it.
Another example was the opening scene with the clocks. Bergman directly engages the viewer into the film’s time imperative. Time was running out. But for what? Slowly, one would discover that time was running out for love, for existing and for life itself. The glaring images of these clocks made me realize that necessity that we humans must face – make a mark in life or be forgotten forever.
And then there is the cinematography. Sven Nykvist won an Oscar for this and deservingly so. The camera was used effectively (and even perfectly) to swing between emotions, swing between times, swing between spaces and swing between characters. It was a master class in itself. A memorable example of this is when Anna (Kari Sylwan) calls Maria and Karin from the other room carrying a candle. This was a small scene but it got me.
Technical aspects aside, Cries and Whispers featured powerhouse acting. It had a lot of very involving and disturbing scenes. Agnes’ suffering was brilliantly portrayed by Harriet Andersson. She was able to transcend the earthly disease by evoking something ethereal. Liv Ullmann’s strength lay with her face (as explicitly explained by character David the doctor). Kari Sylwan was a bright spot in this depressing (and simultaneously uplifting). However, it was Ingrid Thulin who was pure dynamite. That bloody scene in the bedroom got ingrained in my mind. Ingrid’s image will now stay with me forever.
If that is not a rave, I do not know what else I could do. My review may be filled with contradictions but that is because Bergman is a master of irony and a keen observer of life itself. Cries and Whispers is such a beautiful and visceral experience – full of images to relish and remember for life.