For Ingmar Bergman, most of his visions came in black and white and, therefore, most of his films were reflected in black and white. An exception is 1972’s heart-wrenching Cries and Whispers. The use of saturated crimson speaks volumes in this generally quiet motion picture. It is, according to Bergman, the colour of the interior of the soul.
Without question, Cries and Whispers is no easy experience. The markings of Bergman are present, but this picture is almost exceedingly bleak. There is a sense that the movie is coated in despair and in suffering, as though Bergman is pressing these themes harder than ever before. Hope appears but seems fleeting, as though it has long since been abandoned by both the characters and the man behind the camera.
Cries and Whispers revolves around four women. There is Agnes (Harriet Andersson) and she is dying a painful death. Her pain is excruciating to watch, as she struggles for air and writhes in continual anguish as she essentially waits to die. Tending to her are her two sisters, Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), and her maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan).
Bergman uses flashbacks to return to the lives of the characters as they deal with the inevitable passing of Agnes. We learn about the rift between Karin and Maria, of the anguish of their individual lives as borne out through bizarre and violent action and stifled emotional distress. Neither sister is particularly close to the dying Agnes nor can neither offer much comfort. It is only Anna who, in her selflessness, can bring peace to Agnes.
In essence, Cries and Whispers is a film about suffering. Each woman encounters it in her own way and each deal with the emotional and physical impact in her own way. The male characters are on the sidelines, for the most part, serving to only torment or ignore the female characters. The women, despite Bergman’s basic honour towards them, represent varying degrees of monstrosity. Purity is hard to find in Bergman’s vision here, save for the elegance of Anna who manages to remain innocent due to her faithfulness and compassion.
When one considers Karin, for instance, and the vile act of mutilation she performs on herself as revenge against her husband, the painful selfishness is exemplified in the most grotesque of fashions. And Maria, too, drives her husband to suicide due to her own sexual issues. It is suggested that Agnes has cancer related to her own sexual anatomy, which is another sign of Bergman’s designs towards impurity in his characters.
What the characters do share is agony and anguish, of course, and Bergman’s picture is very clear as to how poisonous this concept is. His use of colour paints the soul a vicious, sudden red. His use of carefully designated camera angles further sets up his exploration, illustrating closeness to Agnes’ tortured existence or distance between Karin and Maria.
Religion, too, remains one of Bergman’s points of exploration. Cries and Whispers holds Anna’s faith in the highest regard, but there appears to be a sense of resentment towards her faithfulness in the darkest and bleakest of hours. As a director, Bergman often dealt with the theme of religion’s inability to offer legitimate comfort in true hours of need. Cries and Whispers makes this point clearly and then some.
Cries and Whispers is a difficult motion picture. It is excruciating to watch at times and is exceptionally shot and performed. Nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, marking an unusual moment for a foreign language picture, this is a film that takes attention, time and emotion to fully appreciate. It is bleak and painful, just like the lives and deaths of Bergman’s core characters. Finding a glimmer of hope, while difficult, is not impossible here.
It should be noted that Cries and Whispers isn’t a depressing piece of work, but rather that it requires a deep emotional well from which to draw. Films such as this are never depressing in that they represent such terrific filmmaking and performing, so it’s hard to walk away from this piece feeling anything but flabbergasted as though having spent time in the presence of something truly great.