It has been said many, many times, but it bears saying again: for someone who described himself as an agnostic, Bergman had something of a fixation on religion. Not in social or cultural terms, mind you: Bergman’s concern seems to be almost entirely with very personal matters of faith. Winter Light is probably the most literal in this respect: its protagonist, Tomas (Gunnar Björnstrand), is the pastor of a small Swedish church out in the sticks who finds that as his congregation dwindles (the first scene sees him preaching to a handful of people, several of whom politely try but fail to hide their disinterest), so does his belief.
To some extent, Winter Light seems to be a response to the ending of Through a Glass Darkly, in which Bergman pulled back from his bleak vision of a monstrous, spider-like God in the final scenes. Bergman later said that he came to see the ending of Through a Glass Darkly, which proposes an alternative view in which God is love, as sentimental and false, and Tomas describes his deity in much the same words as Glass‘s Karin, as a spider-like monster: “Every time I confronted God with the realities I witnessed, he turned into something ugly and revolting. A spider God, a monster. … I sought to shield Him from life, clutching my image of Him to myself in the dark.”
Even beyond Tomas’ crisis of faith, though, Winter Light is a bleak, chilling film, which is accentuated to great effect by Sven Nykvist’s cinematography. (I’m still amazed by how, in the absence of colour, the great cinematographers can achieve a warm or cool look in black and white films.) The bleakness is reflected in the characters and their struggles: There is Jonas (played by Bergman favourite Max von Sydow), a father of three who despairs over the Cold War and the news that China will soon have atomic weapons at their disposal and struggles with thoughts of suicide. Then there is Märta (Ingrid Thulin), a member of Tomas’ congregation that he used to have a romantic relationship with. The atheist Märta cares deeply for the pastor, but his feelings towards her have turned bitter and sharp, as the widower Tomas resents Märta for failing to measure up to his late wife, the only woman he ever truly loved. Few people in this cold, wintry story seem to find happiness within their reach.
Winter Light is quintessentially Bergman in its themes and tone – but I have to confess that I found it less engaging than Through a Glass Darkly. While it is fascinating to see how the director varies his themes and actors (I’d first seen Björnstrand as the squire Jöns in The Seventh Seal, a very different character from pastor Tomas), there are some elements that begin to grate with repetition. One of these elements is Bergman’s often self-pitying male characters who externalise their inner anguish and weaponise it against others, in particular the women in their lives. Tomas is such a character. When we first meet him, preaching to a single-digit congregation, he is coming down with a cold, and at times it almost seems that his crisis of faith and his resentment towards God and Märta is perhaps not precipitated but amplified by a bout of man-flu. Tomas is surrounded by people who truly suffer, so it is difficult to feel much sympathy for him when his own anguish is caused largely by his inability to reconcile his idea of the world and the world he actually lives in. Instead, he resents the world and the people in it for not conforming to what he wants them to be. There is something unpleasantly narcissistic and needy about Tomas, as there is about so many of Bergman’s male protagonists.
Nonetheless, while I found myself not wanting to spend time with Tomas, Bergman does find an effective way of ending the film on a striking note of (albeit ambiguous) grace, without resorting to the easy and not entirely convincing sentiment of Through a Glass Darkly‘s ending, one that greatly benefits from not spelling out in words what exactly is going on. Has Tomas rediscovered his previously crumbling faith? Or has he decided that, like love, faith is not just something that happens to you but also something you choose? Winter Light ends, as it begins, with a church service, and outwardly, the service that the film ends on looks even more depressing than the opening one. As far as we can see, nothing fundamental has changed: God may be a spider-like monstrosity or He may not exist at all, and it’s not even clear which of these possibilities is worse – but Tomas’ decision to hold the service in spite of everything matters. Bergman’s God may be silent, but this doesn’t mean that we have to be too.