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Cries and Whispers   A

The Criterion Collection

Year Released: 1972
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Writer: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann.

Review by Gabe Leibowitz

Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers begins with seven silent minutes in which we become acquainted with the film's scenery and the household where the story takes place. The closest we get to words is a diary entry. The lack of dialogue paints an empty, bleak mood. It would be false to say that the tone ever really changes -- it remains unflinching yet oddly beautiful throughout. This is definitely Bergman's coldest work, one that blends the subtlety of Persona and Fanny and Alexander with the evocative imagery of The Seventh Seal; some consider Cries and Whispers to be Bergman's masterpiece for precisely this reason. Though I personally prefer the aforementioned films, Cries and Whispers is an unforgettable experience, one that causes the viewer to frequently wince in emotional pain.

The characters are unchanging in their mindsets; their attempts to break free from their natures fail time and again. Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is bedridden with cancer and has practically no chance of surviving. Her sisters Maria (the always splendid Liv Ullman) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin) come to take care of her, joining her faithful maid Anna (Kari Sylwan). The narrative structure splits the screen time relatively evenly, enabling us to learn a great deal about each of them. Unlike the complex personalities of Alma and Vogler in Persona, however, everything here is pretty much straightforward. Maria, a naive coward who's afraid to confront hardships, has trouble even touching her terminally ill sister. Karin is stone-faced and unfeeling. Their romantic histories act as icons for their behavior, as Bergman shows us in graphic detail throughout the film. Only Anna voluntarily and happily cares for Agnes until she breathes her last. Only with Anna does the pain of death seem to linger.

What, then, is Bergman trying to do here? Cries and Whispers isn't about maturation but about stagnancy, the stubborn refusal to change. By the time the end credits roll, we've seen Karin and Maria attempt to reform but wind up right back where they began -- as both individuals and sisters. They loathe each other and have every right to: they're despicable human beings. Despite very little dialogue, everything comes across smoothly due to Bergman's direction, which is patient and precise. The color schemes, primarily bright red and stark white throughout, match the core simplicity of the characters. Facial expressions (or lack thereof) comprise much of the picture. Even when it's present, speech takes a backseat to reaction. A particularly memorable scene involves the family doctor breaking down Maria's entire persona in one drawn-out close-up. Rather than show us the doctor, Bergman focuses on Maria's face, allowing us to react to every piercing word along with her.

Ah, but don't be misled into believing that this is a shallow film. Much of Bergman's symbolism is slyly left to interpretation and certainly requires multiple viewings to understand fully. In an early flashback, we learn that Agnes' chilly relationship with her mother warmed at a specific moment, involving a hand on the cheek. We see this gesture repeated several times during the movie, and it initially appears to be under near-identical circumstances. Once the film ends, however, it becomes evident that each meaning is completely different. Themes of childhood, infidelity, sisterhood, and compassion are similarly richly textured. I recommend seeing at least a few of Bergman's other works before jumping into Cries and Whispers, lest the experience be too overwhelming.

Review published 07.11.2003.

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