Recently released from a mental hospital; Karin rejoins her emotionally disconnected family and their island home, only to slip from reality as she begins to believe she is being visited by God. (source)
There was a time a couple of years ago when my husband and I watched so many Ingmar Bergman films that we actually believed we could understand Swedish without the subtitles. However, there was one film we neglected to cross off the list – Through A Glass Darkly (1961). So naturally, I had to add it to my Blindspot list. I am a huge fan of Ingmar Bergman and have never been let down by his films once (not even by his television adaptation of The Magic Flute which was surprisingly hilarious). Before watching this film, I was ignorant of its storyline, but my interest was captured by a single still image (see second image below) which appeared so evocative of a classic Bergman film. Furthermore, this film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in the year of its release.
Through A Glass Darkly is possibly the closest to a perfect film I can think of. It retains the sensuous direction by Bergman and gorgeous cinematography by long-time collaborator Sven Nykvist that is on display in literally all of his other films rendered in black and white – these shades come to life in vibrant texture, shadows and light in every frame. The film is set (as were several of Bergman’s other films) on the Swedish island of Fårö; which, when you look at it on a map is a pretty big island. However, the film is shot such that there is a palpable sense of isolation and loneliness. Perhaps this is the film environment communicating the experience of protagonist Karin (Harriet Andersson).
When we begin this film, we get to know our four main characters who are all essential to the story. Family drama, as with Bergman’s many other works, is a key theme and is not unrelated to the central story around Karin’s difficulties. We meet the distant father, famous author David (Gunnar Björnstrand); the mostly ignored and romantically frustrated younger brother, aspiring actor Minus (Lars Passgård); Karin’s devoted husband, Martin (Max von Sydow); and lastly, Karin herself. There is a sense of disconnection and repressed conflict within this family and over time we learn why that might be. But we also learn that Karin has recently returned from a stay in a mental hospital and has received electroconvulsive therapy, which she initially says has enhanced her sense of hearing (or are those auditory hallucinations?). All of these characters, their motivations and worries, are communicated in such a clear manner by their respective actors. Their issues are not one-note, and as aforementioned, we get the sense that there are many more issues that have been repressed. This is what I love about Bergman’s films – everything has depth, but the film doesn’t enter into unnecessary melodrama to convince us of that.
(Everyone who knows me also knows that 1960s Max von Sydow is my #1 celebrity crush. He is beautiful.)
Harriet Andersson as Karin is undoubtedly the absolute highlight of this film. In many of Bergman’s other films, antagonists are presented as external entities (e.g. Death in The Seventh Seal, a whole cast of creepy villains in Hour of the Wolf). But in Through A Glass Darkly, a possible antagonist could be considered to be Karin’s mental health which presents in a similar manner to schizophrenia. Because there is no external representation of this antagonist, the film relies on Andersson’s portrayal of a torn and conflicted woman to illustrate this fight. And she does it in a simply magical manner. Her performance is heartwrenching and passionate. You can imagine that if this role was given to anyone else, it may have been interpreted in a melodramatic and overly crazed manner. But this performance is so subtle and is therefore more convincing and moving. She is brilliant.
At the risk of repeating myself, I absolutely loved Through A Glass Darkly. It is a classic work of Bergman genius, and is possibly the closest to a perfect film I have ever seen (and that’s a big call). Its ending is quite simplified however and contains some surprising, out of character optimism that somewhat takes it away from being the ultimate perfect film. But it’s not just Bergman who makes this film shine. The performances are each and all amazing. Possibly the greatest respect I have for this film comes from its treatment of its main female character, Karin, who suffers from an unnamed mental condition which sounds and presents very similar to schizophrenia. Never once does this film dismiss Karin as a crazy, unhinged, or dangerous woman for having this condition. Karin’s condition is treated with respect and integrity, even when she is engaging in some behaviour which would be considered unusual. Through A Glass Darkly is possibly one of the few films from this era where this occurs, which (in addition to everything I’ve already written) makes this a very special film indeed.
Watch the trailer here.