Combustible Celluloid
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With: Pernilla Allwin, Bertil Guve, Gunn Wallgren, Allan Edwall, Ewa Froling, Jan Malmsjo, Erland Josephson, Harriet Andersson, Lena Olin, Gunn Walgren, Ewa Froling, Jarl Kulle, Allan Edwall, Borje Ahlstedt Mona Malm, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Jan Malmsjo
Written by: Ingmar Bergman
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
MPAA Rating: R
Language: Swedish with English subtitles
Running Time: 188
Date: 17/12/1982

Fanny and Alexander (1983)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Family Life

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Of Ingmar Bergman's films, most people seem to prefer The Seventh Seal. That film, made fairly early in the great filmmaker's career, has risen to the top of film polls, which strikes me as odd since it's one of my least favorites. It's really rather juvenile and relies on grandiose theatrical ideas rather than the more subtle cinematic ones Bergman used in later films.

To go one further, I can't understand how such a bizarre film -- featuring a character who plays chess with Death -- would be the popular favorite, when Bergman's masterpiece Fanny and Alexander (1983) is clearly the director's most accessible, and perhaps most personal film.

Fanny and Alexander enjoyed a 2004 re-release on the big screen and made its subsequent debut on DVD in two editions from the Criterion Collection, one in the 188-minute theatrical cut and one including both the theatrical cut and the 5-hour Swedish television cut.

At the time, Bergman intended Fanny and Alexander as a kind of final magnum opus, a return to his childhood and a farewell to cinema, though he directed one more television film immediately following (After the Rehearsal) and has written several screenplays (The Best Intentions, Faithless).

This year he returns to the director's chair with his new film Saraband.

But that does not diminish the power of Fanny and Alexander. Most of the 188-minute cut takes place through the eyes of ten year-old Alexander (Bertil Guve), who is clearly the one Bergman identifies with. Though she shares the title with her older brother, Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) does not have as much to do.

The film begins at a lovely and sad Christmas party, circa 1907, that takes up nearly an entire hour and could almost play as a little movie in itself. We meet all the various members of Alexander's large family, which can be confusing, but all becomes clear over the course of the three hours (and perhaps clearer still during the five-hour television version, which I haven't seen).

For Alexander's widowed grandmother Helena (Gunn Wallgren), Christmas is a time of sadness, and she tries to hide her tears from her reveling guests. Her confidant and longtime lover, Isak (Erland Josephson), a Jewish antique dealer, is at her side.

Alexander's actor father Oscar (Allan Edwall) is currently cast as the ghost of Hamlet's father and is as pale and frail in life as he is on the stage. But his beautiful, vibrant mother, Emilie (Ewa Froling) is just the opposite. She's the theater's star.

The boy's uncles provide endless entertainment. The dour, drunken professor Carl (Borje Ahlstedt) enjoys lighting his farts for the children, while the amorous, eternally randy Gustav (Jarl Kulle) spends the night sleeping with a maid, then comes home and enjoys the pleasures of his wife Alma (Mona Malm). Alma knows about her husband's infidelities and doesn't seem to mind.

As with the wedding in The Godfather, Bergman uses the Christmas party to introduce us to his characters and to establish their relationships with one another -- especially with their guard down. But he also layers more into it. It's an inkblot test; we see the party through the eyes of the excited children, who will remember this Christmas fondly for the rest of their lives. In one scene, Alexander can't wait to play with his new magic lantern show, telling ghost stories to his younger sister and cousins. Eventually one of them gets scared and shrieks, and everyone must scramble back into bed before the adults come.

At the same time we see the party through the eyes of the disappointed adults, clobbered with their money worries, their loneliness and fear.

With the pleasures of Christmas worn off, life goes on. Alexander's sick father passes away, and the boy notices his mother taking comfort in the company of a strict bishop (Jan Malmsjo), whom she eventually marries.

One of the greatest of all movie villains, we initially see the bishop through Alexander's jealousy and hatred, but we soon learn that this sinister, puritanical man is evil all by himself -- with or without Alexander's help. He makes the family give up all its worldly pleasures, including clothes, toys, books, etc. before they move into his drafty, stone cold old house. A spark of rebellion fires in Alexander, and the bishop takes to beating him and locking the children in their room. By the time Emilie realizes she's made a mistake, the bishop has blackmailed her into staying (he can easily get custody of the children).

Even if Bergman exaggerates this relationship in the film, he was the son of a clergyman, and so this may be the most "autobiographical" part of the film. Bergman has given us problematic religious men before, notably the faithless priest in the gorgeous, painful Winter Light (1963), but this bishop blows them all away.

Bergman also considers himself a product of the theater; Alexander's real parents are actors and his "fake" father is a religious man, and Bergman tellingly opens the film by showing Alexander playing with a toy stage, his face framed by the tiny curtain.

The third part of the film concerns Fanny and Alexander's daring rescue from the bishop's house and their temporary lodging with Isak in his antique shop. The shop is a maze filled with wonders, from giant puppets to little dollhouses. When Alexander gets up in the night to find the loo, he finds himself almost lost in a dream.

Bergman increasingly fills Fanny and Alexander with ghosts and dreams and fairy tales, but they're not just randomly tossed in for the sake of art -- as in The Seventh Seal. They're rooted in a boy's imagination, hopes and fears. They feel as if they stem from the real boy and not from the celluloid itself.

That may be the key to the film's success: that an older, wiser Bergman has learned to live comfortably with his madness as opposed to splaying it all over the place. With The Seventh Seal, we can only gawk at the weirdness, but Fanny and Alexander visits a place inside all of us.

DVD Details: In 2004, the Criterion Collection has released this masterpiece in two DVD editions, the five disc special edition (which comes with both the 5-hour cut and the 3-hour theatrical version), as well as the three-hour theatrical cut. In 2011, a magnificent Blu-Ray edition followed, collecting the five DVDs onto three Blu-Ray discs: the television version on one, the theatrical version on the second (with an optional commentary track by Peter Cowie), and extras on the third. Extras remain the same as on the DVD edition, though Bergman's notable "making of" documentary has been remastered for high-definition.

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