When I say "peaceful" I don't necessarily mean "reconciled." In Fanny and Alexander Bergman sums up the themes of a body of work in which the director often brought audiences to the edge of the abyss and invited them to contemplate the void; and here, using a child as his stand-in, Bergman illustrates very clearly how it is that this void found its genesis and why it can never quite be filled. The difference is that the dilemma of existence in Fanny and Alexander is shown through a child's eyes (Bergman seldom used children elsewhere) and it's suffused with the magic of childhood curiosity and discovery. The child, like Bergman, will grow to be an artist; the director says that tragedies like those that befall Alexander are a necessary part of that.
Fanny and Alexander opens in Uppsala on a Christmas Eve early in the twentieth century where the children's famous and well-off extended family of actors, actresses, and other theater adherents celebrate the holiday with the elaborateness you might expect from show people. Despite the philandering of one uncle and the financial woes of another, life amid this loving family and their servants is a kind of paradise for the children, and these early scenes are among the richest and leafiest in all Bergman's work. Paradise is lost when the children's father dies suddenly and their mother weds a cold, conservative bishop. Bergman's own father was a Lutheran pastor, and he portrays life in the bishop's home in the bleakest imaginable terms, inhabited by a feeble-minded, bedridden aunt, a treacherous maid with chronic rashes on her skin, and the ghosts of the bishop's previous wife and children. When the bishop refuses to grant his wife a divorce, the intervention of a Jewish family friend lands Alexander and his sister in the Jew's strange home; here a mysticism prevails that is very different from the bishop's, and before he's returned to his family, Alexander makes the acquaintance of a violently unstable young man (played by a woman) who may or may not help Alexander extract his revenge against the bishop.
That's the primary arc of the plot, but the tapestry Bergman weaves in Fanny and Alexander is an unimaginably rich one, and the film takes in a wealth of subplots involving the operation of the theater (the interaction of life and theater being another of Bergman's persisting themes) and the lives of Alexander's family and their servants. In that sense, and in his treatment of the many characters, Fanny and Alexander is Bergman's most generous film. (He even finds sympathy for the bishop.) But what remained with me after I first saw the movie in the '80s, and what struck me with this viewing, is the childlike sense of wonder and the magical that Bergman brings to the film. Many passages are indelible; I'll never forget, for instance, the children's rescue from the bishop's home, a logically impossible sequence but a seamless fantasy on the screen, or Alexander's encounter with the madman and the inscrutable tragedy that follows.
The Criterion Collection has made Fanny and Alexander available in two versions. The five-disc set includes both the 5 1/2-our full version, as it appeared on Swedish television, as well as the theatrical release, and two full discs of extra material. A two-disc version contains only the theatrical release (which took the 1984 Oscar for best foreign language film) and a more limited menu of extras. If your interest in Bergman is more than passing, I urge you to pay the extra money for Fanny and Alexander's full edit, but the film, short or long version, is essential viewing for us all.
Aka Fanny och Alexander.
Run time: 188 mins
In Theaters: Friday 17th December 1982
Box Office Worldwide: $5M
Distributed by: Embassy Pictures Corporation
Production compaines: Cinematograph AB, Svenska Filminstitutet (SFI), Tobis Filmkunst, Sveriges Television (SVT)
Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
IMDB: 8.2 / 10
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Producer: Jörn Donner, Daniel Toscan du Plantier
Screenwriter: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Allan Edwall as Oscar Ekdahl, Ewa Fröling as Emilie Ekdahl, Erland Josephson as Isak Jacobi, Bertil Guve as Alexander Ekdahl, Pernilla Allwin as Fanny Ekdahl, Jan Malmsjö as Bishop Edvard Vergerus, Gunn Wållgren as Helena Ekdahl, Börje Ahlstedt as Carl Ekdahl, Harriet Andersson as Justina, Gunnar Björnstrand as Filip Landahl, Stina Ekblad as Ismael Retzinsky, Mats Bergman as Aron Retzinsky, Kerstin Tidelius as Henrietta Vergerus, Pernilla August as Maj, Mona Malm as Alma Ekdahl, Jarl Kulle as Gustav Adolf Ekdahl, Christina Schollin as Lydia Ekdahl
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