Winter Light, the second film in Ingmar Bergman's early-1960s trilogy on the theme of faith in contemporary society, opens in a cold, stone church in a provincial town north of Stockholm. It's uninviting. A service is underway, and the pastor (played by Gunnar Björnstrand) is explaining the origin of the Holy Communion and Christ's betrayal after the Last Supper. The service is poorly attended, the congregation including only the pastor's mistress (Ingrid Thulin), an older woman and a child, and a young couple, he a fisherman (Max Von Sydow), and she a housewife expecting their fourth child (Gunnel Lindblom). Everyone is bundled up against the cold, the organist is noisily checking his watch, and outside the windows snow falls ceaselessly.
Winter Light, like much of Bergman, is a slow ride, but it rewards your close attention. The action here has less to do with the plot than with the conflicts taking place within the hearts and souls of its protagonists. Björnstrand's pastor is one who is in crisis; he is battling to retain his faith, and to accommodate his mistress in his life. She has no belief in God; she nurtures on a more practical level (her job is as a school teacher), and the pastor is constantly rejecting her ministrations. The Swedish title of this film translates to The Communicants, meaning both those who take communion and those who communicate among themselves, and it's the tragedy of the film that none of them can.
Most of the film takes place within the church. After the service, the pastor is approached by the fisherman and his pregnant wife about the man's fears of nuclear warfare and his general hopelessness. Björnstrand is helpless; instead of offering any real solace, he conveys his own doubts, and the fisherman kills himself moments later when he leaves. The pastor and his mistress stop by the schoolroom on their way to break the news to the man's wife, and there he attacks her for efforts to treat the flu he's suffering from and for failing to live up to his widow's memory. They pay their visit to the new widow (played by Gunnel Lindblom, a mouse here as opposed to the tempestuous nymphomaniac she played in The Silence, the next film in the trilogy), and then drive to a nearby village for a second service, which no one attends. The film ends with Björnstrand commencing a sermon in which he has little belief to a room containing only his mistress, a drunken organist, and the disabled church employee whose job it is to light candles and ring bells.
But within this bare plot lies a treasure trove of subtleties. Every character in the film who maintains faith in God suffers from a physical ailment: the pastor's flu, the helper's painful disability, the unidentified illness of a young seminary student. Björnstrand dispenses the host to his congregation in the form of communion wafers, then dispenses the flu to his mistress with a kiss. He won't accept medicine from her and she won't accept his spiritual guidance, just as he won't accept her love and she won't accept his belief. He instructs the disabled church volunteer to read scripture at night as a diversion from the pain he suffers from constantly, but the volunteer's close examination of the text just leads him into doubt himself. He speculates that he himself must have suffered physically much more than Jesus did, and he asks if the emphasis in the Bible isn't wrong: wasn't Jesus' real agony caused by being alone at the end? "He's abandoned right when he relies on people and that must be excruciatingly painful." But then everyone in Winter Light is, ultimately, abandoned and alone.
This film was Bergman's second with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, with whom he worked for many decades after, and the crystalline clarity of the images does full justice to the title. This winter light lays bare the suffering and isolation of its characters. The film opens with Jesus' betrayal and ends with his physical death on the cross, and, compared to the desolation of the lives Bergman presents, it seems like a preferable fate.
Available on DVD as part of a box set with The Silence and Through a Glass Darkly (all part of a trilogy of sorts). Aka Nattvardsgästerna .