The Silence (1963)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 36min

By the time Ingmar Bergman had finished directing Winter Light, he claimed to have come to terms with his agnosticism and the unknowability of God’s existence. The third part of his unofficial Faith trilogy thus offers new dimensions to his long-running spiritual meditations, formally manifesting that existential fear which has run through so many of his films – the universe’s cold, unresponsive silence. It pervades Bergman’s screenplay and sound design with glacial repression, stifling the attempts of estranged sisters Ester and Anna to communicate with each other and their surrounding environment. Though God is not the focus here, His absence still lingers in occasional mentions of the deceased family patriarch.

“When Father died you said, ‘I don’t think want to go on living.’ So why are you still around?”

It is a brief, symbolic nod to a higher power, but a significant one when it comes to understanding the catalyst for The Silence’s modern malaise. Ester is severely ill both mentally and physically, and so when Anna directs this question towards her, it is virtually an attack on her weakened spirit that cannot embrace either life or death. Instead, she wastes away in the oppressive limbo of her hotel room, which resides in the fictional European city of Timoka. Meanwhile, Anna ventures outside in search of adventure, hoping that it might offer her some meaningful, reinvigorating connection with the world.

The Silence is Bergman’s most minimalist screenplay in his career, but this just leaves the door open for some wonderful visual storytelling as we see in the superb opening train scene.

The third member of this travelling party is Johan, Anna’s son, who quietly observes their unsettled relationship and wanders the hotel’s faded Baroque hallways. This architectural marvel is a decaying monument to another glorious era when it might have been populated with posh clientele, though now it is virtually empty to due to some encroaching war. One might almost think of The Shining in the way Bergman symmetrically lines his empty corridors with chandeliers, ornamentations, and embroidered carpets, creating an ornate maze for this young boy to lose himself within and encounter an odd assortment of characters. With little else to keep him entertained, he recklessly shoots off his toy pistol, and when he looks outside a window a military tank rolls aimlessly through quiet streets like a lost child. Maybe aimless violence is simply humanity’s most natural instinct when left to its own devices.

Surely the scenes of Johan wandering the hotel corridors inspired The Shining. The symmetrical framing, the random encounters, and the haunting atmosphere are very recognisable.
A tank wanders a street like a lost child – a portrait of aimless violence.

Well, violence and sex at least. There’s not really any doubt that The Silence is Bergman’s most explicit film when it comes to matters of carnal desire. Being far more comfortable in her skin than her sister, Anna is often shot in the nude while in her hotel room, and there is a touch of Freudian intrigue on Johan’s part as he spies her through a door. When she goes out to the theatre, she reacts with both fascination and disgust at the couple having sex a few seats down from her, which subsequently inspires her to invite a waiter she has had innocent flirtations with back to her room. Meanwhile, Ester’s only form of sexual expression is masturbation, though for her this is barely even a form of self-love. She is wholly disgusted by sex on a sensory level, unable to form a healthy physical connection with anyone else, let alone herself.

The arrangement of faces in Bergman’s frames is remarkably in tune with his characters as always, here crafting an image of Freudian tension.

These are but the symptoms of a contemporary society which has slowly eroded clear lines of communications between its citizens, and left in its place an apathetic void of emotion. Violence persists without purpose, and sex without love. How ironic it is too that Ester herself works as a translator, and yet she is as stumped as Anna and Johan when it comes to speaking with any of the locals. Like the city of Timoka, their foreign language is entirely invented by Bergman, offering a tinge of surrealism to this setting which pushes us and our main characters even further away from any firm reality.

Three layers to Bergman’s depth of field in this one, illustrating a disconnection between each character through the blocking and set obstruction.

This language barrier is partially why so many characters choose to remain silent, and yet even within our Swedish-speaking cast, that quiet tension continues to dominate. Bergman’s sound design flourishes in the absence of dialogue, building out rich aural textures which sensitise us to the tiny movements of each scene, and then break them up with unexpected intrusions – jet planes flying overhead for instance, or the recurring disturbance of a ticking pocket watch. When conversations do unfold, they are often filled with deliberate lies, miscommunications, and purposeful ignorance. Even between Ester and Johan, a simple discussion over how to spend time together cannot settle on a single direction.

“How about you read to me?”

“I’ll show you my Punch and Judy instead.”

The puppet show he subsequently improvises is childish in its cartoonish violence and garbled nonsense, creating a crude reflection of the film’s dysfunctional modern culture. Clear parallels are also well-drawn in the following exchange.

“What’s he saying?”

“I don’t know. He’s scared, so he speaks in a funny language.”

Beautiful detail in the relationship between Ester and Johan, left alone in the hotel together when Anna goes into town. The division between them is helpless, despite the longing to connect.

The disconnect between strangers, neighbours, and family members is thoroughly illustrated in Bergman’s world, but even as he continues to delve even deeper into Ester and Anna’s strained relationship, we even discover a detachment between the human body and mind. These women and their respective Jungian archetypes are thus set in opposition to each other – one sharply intelligent and discerning of the outside world, the other seeking excitement and caring tenderly for her child.

Perhaps this study of a psychological, feminine duality could be read as a precursor to Persona which would come out three years later, though Bergman is not so opaque here with the emergence of his characters’ darker ‘shadow’ selves. Anna is intellectually dishonest, carelessly throwing out lies to torment her sister, and when pushed to answer why she holds so much resentment, she doesn’t hold back in exposing Ester’s cold, arrogant judgementalism.  

“It’s just that you always harp on your principles, and drone on about how important everything is. But it’s all just hot air. You know why? I’ll tell you. Because everything centres around your ego. You can’t live without feeling superior. That’s the truth. Everything has to be desperately important and meaningful, and goodness knows what.”

The Silence marks staggering acting achievements for both Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom, especially in a year where both would also give excellent performances in Winter Light.

Bergman’s talents as a writer of cutting dialogue are evidently far from wasted in this film, and yet given the pervasive silence that hangs between characters, monologues like this are exceedingly rare. In fact, all the dialogue in the film’s first half hour might barely fill a single page, leaving Bergman to move this narrative forward and build out characters through rich visual direction. His camera’s deep focus is crucial to the magnificent blocking on display here, opening strong with a five-minute shot of our main trio shuffling in bored discomfort around a train carriage, and later arranging haunting compositions of the sisters’ faces like two parts of a whole.

Relationships illustrated in Bergman’s blocking – Ester lonely in the foreground, Anna and Johan caught together in the background in a wonderful composition.

The power that both Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom draw from Bergman’s shrewd framing in moments like these is considerable. Thulin carries herself with poise and control as Ester, and when her mental agony bursts forth he often catches her haunted expressions from high angles – at one point offering her gentle repose as the porter helps her back into bed, and later casting her in harsh light as she fearfully approaches death.

High angles often intensify the impact of Ester’s breakdowns, peering down at her face from above.

Lindblom too receives similar visual treatment when she probes Anna’s raw vulnerability. Her rendezvous with the waiter at the hotel is little more than an excuse to pour out her contempt on someone who cannot speak back (“How nice that we don’t understand each other”), but this is no substitute for real love. Raucous laughter quickly turns into sobbing as she hangs over the end of the bed, while Bergman shoots her contorted expression and posture from another high angle. Thulin’s acting may have beat out Lindblom’s in their other 1963 film Winter Light, but both are very much on equal footing here, desperately pushing past a mutual repression to uncover profound, existential terrors.

Similarly, Anna’s breakdown towards the end of The Silence hangs her on the end of the bed and diminishes her in the frame.

These noisy eruptions of honest emotion can never survive long in The Silence though. The next morning after Anna’s breakdown, that wordless impassivity she shares with her own family is back in place, even heavier with bitter sullenness. With Ester’s implied death and Anna’s abandonment of her in the hotel room, it appears that disintegration of humanity in an aimless modern society is inevitable. The train which brought these characters into Timoka now departs with one passenger less, and yet the atmosphere onboard sounds just as lifeless as it did at the start. In The Silence, civilisation will persist even in the absence of love and meaning – just as it did before Ester’s passing, and just as it will continue to do through a gradual, noiseless self-destruction of the human spirit.

The Silence is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.


High and Low (1963)

Akira Kurosawa | 2hr 23min

At first glance, the executive meeting over a giant Japanese shoe company buyout might seem to have little to do with the kidnapping, mix-up, and deadly ultimatum directed at its most influential player. The nameless voice on the other end of the telephone sounds more motivated by resentment towards Kingo Gondo than any desire to specifically ruin his business plans. That it is the son of Gondo’s chauffeur who is abducted rather than his actual child is a complete mistake on the kidnapper’s part, though not one that deters him any less. If Gondo refuses to pay up the 30,000 yen he intends to use for his business deal and lets the boy die, then his reputation will be destroyed, and the operation could still be counted a success. For the wealthy businessman and Akira Kurosawa alike, this is only partially a dilemma of ethics. It soon becomes very apparent that concerns of class, privilege, and status are far more central to this agonising predicament.

That High and Low is so perfectly captivating throughout its two and a half hour run time should be no surprise to those who are familiar with Kurosawa’s ability to construct tight, gripping narratives with brilliant stylistic invention. That this procedural film holds up to the incredibly high standard set by Seven Samurai from nine years earlier is far more likely to catch even his most ardent admirers off-guard. This is a transcendent achievement of storytelling, constantly moving forward at a momentum which never wastes so much as a line of dialogue. Kurosawa’s inspired structure has a significant role to play in this too. For almost the entire first hour, we are trapped inside Gondo’s modernist mansion as he slowly unravels, before spinning out into the streets, alleys, and slums of Yokohama where detectives methodically hunt down the mysterious culprit. High and Low may start small, but by the end it feels as if we have touched every corner of this sprawling city wracked with severe social disparity.

High and Low is right next to Seven Samurai and Rashomon in terms of blocking. Kurosawa turns bodies at all angles across his mise-en-scène, but he also emphasises the height in the frame between characters.
Great location scouting for many scenes throughout High and Low once we leave the confinement of Gondo’s living room. Superb form drawn in this divide too.

Even with its relatively contained opening act though, Kurosawa is already laying out a microcosm of urban inequality. Along two sides of Gondo’s living room are giant windows which open onto expansive metropolitan views, situating his residence on a hill far above the squalor below. Clearly Bong Joon-ho was inspired by this use of elevation and architecture to illustrate the social standings of his characters in Parasite, though Kurosawa continues to draw it even further into his mise-en-scene by way of his ensemble blocking.

Vast windows looking down on the city below, and drawing rigid lines in the set design between characters.

Much like the work of his contemporaries Michelangelo Antonioni and Luchino Visconti, his camera’s deep focus is essential to these astonishing compositions of bodies staggered right into the background. Actors are turned at all angles throughout this clean, modern space, their connections slowly eroding and visually divided by the harsh lines of the mansion’s walls, doorways, and furniture. The only time we ever find some unity between them is in those shots of heads anxiously gathered around the telephone during the kidnapper’s calls, forcing Gondo into the centre as he oscillates between fury and trepidation.

Disconnection and unity drawn in a pair of images. You can read the room simply by the way Kurosawa arranges his actors – not unlike Visconti or Antonioni.

The fiery presence that Toshirô Mifune brought to Kurosawa’s earlier films is all but gone here as the tortured businessman, replaced with an intensive focus and excruciating indecision. Much like his elevated house, he towers over many of his fellow cast members with a powerful screen presence, dominating the foreground while the small, cowering chauffeur played by Yutaka Sada grovels at his feet. After all, it was his son that was kidnapped, though one wouldn’t guess it from the way he is constantly pushed to the edge of the frame, into the background, and outside of entire scenes. He may be suffering most than anyone else, but as a poor, working-class man, he also lacks the agency that makes Gondo such a fascinating character, and who in turn imbues this narrative with such riveting tension. For the first magnificent hour of High and Low, this decision ultimately comes down to his own willingness to give up his privilege for a young boy’s life.

Toshiro Mifune gives a performance very distant from his fiery persona in Seven Samurai or Rashomon. Gondo is a complicated figure, neither a hero like the press might paint him, nor a villain like the kidnapper believes. He is also front and centre of this film for the first hour, before disappearing and returning at the end.

Thankfully, he chooses the far more stomachable option. He may be ruined financially, and the big company buyout he was planning may not go ahead, but in the public eye he is a hero. Little do they know how thin of a knife’s edge he was sitting on. Conversely, his fellow business executives who oust him from the company for his financial losses are swiftly vilified by the media, and accused of punishing an honourable man for his righteous actions.

The reach and influence of the press proves to be particularly large in major incidents like these which can so easily be simplified down to good and bad people, but this is not a dichotomy Kurosawa has much interest in. Even these journalists who only seem driven to generate the most sensational headline end up serving a noble purpose, cooperating with the police to plant a false story in the hope of drawing out the kidnapper. This is a complex investigation with many moving parts, even if Gondo serves little purpose in it anymore. Now without wealth or power, his agency is effectively taken away like the chauffeur before him, sinking him into the distant background of a narrative that he can no longer affect in any meaningful way.

Radiating faces and bodies out like spokes from a centre, focusing everything inward on an intensive investigation.

With Mifune almost entirely out of the picture, it is time for the police officers to take the lead in this ensemble piece, leaving behind the spacious manor and descending to the streets below. If there is a slight drop in the film’s visual splendour at this point, it is only because virtually every shot up until now has been so perfectly rendered – by any other standard, the procedural section of this narrative features the sort of urban location shooting and staging that stands among the finest of cinema history.

About an hour into the film, Kurosawa exchanges Gondo’s small living room set for an entire city of location shooting. Slums, streets, clubs, and alleys become an urban jungle for these detectives to navigate.

Particularly notable is the enormous formal contrast between the clean sophistication of the room we have just spent most of our time in against Yokohama’s ragged shanty towns, where alley walls squeeze inwards and hanging laundry obstructs frames. From down here, Kurosawa catches sight of Gondo’s mansion through the kidnapper’s ramshackle home, almost like a reverse shot of the view from his living room. “That house gets on your nerves. As if it’s looking down at us,” one police officer gripes, and from this new perspective it is easy to sympathise. Class resentment runs thick in the city’s deepest pits.

The view from the kidnapper’s slum window is virtually a reverse shot of the view from Gondo’s living room. It’s hard not to think of Parasite now when we see this elevated mansion sitting on a hill – a symbol of status.

Much like these detectives, Kurosawa understands the need for patience and precision to catch a criminal, teasing out and paying off every single plot beat along the way. Early on, it is mentioned that a trap has been left in the kidnapper’s money bag which will let off pink smoke when burnt, and one might easily forget this was ever mentioned if it wasn’t for a giant reveal later on in the film’s most striking composition. Gathering in front of Gondo’s giant living room window, the heads of various police officers line the foreground, while a distant chimney spills out the sole trace of colour in this black-and-white film – a plume of pink, incriminating smoke.

A stand-out shot in a film full of them – pink, incriminating smoke rising from an industrial chimney, offering Kurosawa’s black-and-white a photography a sole touch of colour, and marking this as a crucial point in the narrative.

The puzzle pieces only come together faster from here. The kidnapped boy recalls landmarks from where he was kept, the ether used to knock him unconscious is traced to a local hospital, and a pair of dead bodies reveal the culprit’s betrayal of his own accomplices. The covert tailing of the prime suspect through an ambient jazz club makes for another superbly constructed sequence too, as Kurosawa hangs us in the grip of a largely wordless cat-and-mouse pursuit. For now, the target of their suspicion does not realise he is being watched, but neither can we read his cold, stoic face behind his giant pair of dark, reflective sunglasses. As we follow him into the rundown ‘Dope Alley’ outside, Kurosawa mutates High and Low into a zombie film for a brief time, crowding the cops with homeless drug addicts itching for their next hit. If Gondo’s mansion sits high in the clouds as a heavenly paradise, then these are the sordid pits of hell, co-existing in the same city.

The cat-and-mouse pursuit of the kidnapper through the jazz club and dope alley makes for brilliant visual storytelling, often leaving dialogue out altogether.

Such harsh depictions of class inequality are essential to our eventual understanding of the kidnapper’s motivations. Ginjirô is his name, a young medical student who claims that his hate of Gondo has been his sole reason for living. Even as he sits in prison after being caught, he taunts the broken, disenchanted businessman with a façade of easy indifference, claiming that he is neither regretful for his actions nor scared of his impending execution. It is plain to see the lie from his incontrollable shaking, and even more evident when he breaks down in complete mortal terror. In the glass that separates both men, the reflection of Gondo’s weary expression is faintly imprinted over Ginjirô’s manic face, composing an image of two halves – both ends of civilization, broken by its own social and economic disparity.

The law may have triumphed over corruption, and yet it is just like Kurosawa to find such soul-destroying cynicism in this result, recognising the impossibility of solving the greater issue at hand. The formal divisions that run through his mise-en-scene and gripping narrative structure in High and Low painstakingly reveal a civilisation that has eroded the connections between its citizens, forcing them into bitter games of twisted revenge, and only ever leaving behind miserable losers when the dust has finally settled.

A faint reflection of Gondo’s face in the glass between him and the kidnapper. A sad, cynical ending typical of Kurosawa’s nihilism.

High and Low is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Winter Light (1963)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 21min

In the 1950s, Ingmar Bergman directed three films with ‘Summer’ in their title, referring to the season of one’s life that blossoms with romance and vitality. Winter Light then clearly marks a drastic shift in the tone of his introspective meditations, isolating us in Father Thomas Ericsson’s lifeless, rural parish. His congregation at the Sunday noon mass is uninspiringly small, and as we sit through the last ten minutes of his service there is an overwhelming emptiness to the proceedings. The prayers, hymns, and liturgy of the Eucharist move by at a sluggish pace, while Bergman cuts between close-ups of the parishioners’ expressions ranging from deep in thought to downright bored. This church is not a sanctuary for Christians, as the minimalist beauty of its arched ceilings and rough stone walls rather mirrors the bleakness of the frozen landscapes outside, infusing Winter Light with a chilling severity that cuts right to the troubled hearts of its believers, sceptics, and doubters.

The first ten minutes of Winter Light is the most lifeless mass you have ever seen, and Bergman’s photography is at its bleakest.

The scope of this narrative is far narrower than many of Bergman’s previous films, taking place over the course of a few hours between two services on a frosty Sunday afternoon. Tomas’ spiritual crisis began a long time before we pick up on his story, and it will continue far beyond the point that we leave him, though this brief time frame applies an intensive focus to the point at which it cannot be contained any longer.

For the first time in his many collaborations with Bergman, Gunnar Björnstrand takes the leading role, bringing not just a brooding bitterness to Tomas’ ruminations, but also a common cold that plagued him throughout production. Rather than cutting around its interruptions, Bergman turns it into a part of his character, reflecting his spiritual sickness as a physical ailment. At one point after he echoes Christ’s words on the cross, “God, why have you forsaken me?”, a coughing fit even brings him to his knees in front of his altar, while Bergman shines a bright sun through the tall, arched window above him in a divine image of human frailty.

A divine composition from Bergman in Tomas’ church, his sickness bringing him to his knees at the altar.

In this moment, the only person there to hold him is his ex-mistress Märta, played by Ingrid Thulin with self-conscious modesty. She is deliberately dressed down here, drawing attention away from her natural looks and turning her into a figure who evokes pity, disdain, and occasionally affection from Tomas. She is a collection of contradictions that shouldn’t make sense from a strict religious perspective, being a firm atheist and yet believing more in the Christian virtue of compassion than any other character. Additionally, she is the most constant presence in Tomas’ masses besides his sexton and organist, driven to remain by his side out of a selfless love that he often pushes away.

To Björnstrand’s disillusioned priest though, she is a reminder of the material world he spurned to pursue a life of faith, which now seems to be worth little. Bergman offers both a pair of monologues which formally complement each other on either side of this ambivalent dynamic, holding a six-minute shot on Thulin as she laments a summer where Tomas reacted with disgust to her spreading rash, without once praying for her healing. Given Bergman’s usual talent for evocatively framed close-ups, this is far from his finest, though its breaking of the fourth wall does allow for a brutal honesty which only feeds Tomas’ insecurity.

“Your faith seems obscure and neurotic, somehow cruelly overwrought with emotion, primitive. One thing in particular I’ve never been able to fathom: your peculiar indifference to Jesus Christ.”

Ingrid Thulin gives one of her greatest performances as the atheistic Märta, offering immense warmth and compassion to Tomas’ doubting priest. The story of her rash even bears some resemblance to legends of stigmata affecting saints.

Throughout Winter Light he offers numerous reasons for his dwindling faith, including the horrors he witnessed during the Spanish Civil War, his wife’s premature death, and a recognition that he only took up this profession due to his father’s influence. And yet when it comes time for him to pour all of his disdain right back on her, he offers a far less sincere verbal assault, seeking to wound her for all his petty grievances.

“I’m tired of your loving care. Your fussing. Your good advice. Your candlesticks and table runners. I’m fed up with your short-sightedness. Your clumsy hands. Your anxiousness. Your timid displays of affection. You force me to occupy myself with your physical condition. Your poor digestion. Your rashes. Your periods. Your frostbitten cheeks. Once and for all I have to escape this junkyard of idiotic trivialities. I’m sick and tired of it all, of everything to do with you.”

Both Björnstrand and Thulin get a pair of monologues that feature some of Bergman’s best writing – one seeking truth, the other offering hate.

Björnstrand commands immense verbal power here, though it is Bergman’s savage pen which impresses most of all in this string of merciless barbs. Spouses have been tearing each other to pieces in his films ever since the 1940s, and while Tomas and Märta’s relationship is not the sole focus of Winter Light, this exchange goes toe to toe with Scenes from a Marriage as his quintessential depiction of undistilled resentment between lovers.

With the task of fostering his parish’s spiritual growth now seeming an impossible task, Tomas finds himself acting out in stubborn, angry protest. When one of his parishioners, Jonas Persson, confronts him after mass with concerns over an impending nuclear winter, Tomas cannot find the energy to offer the “benign answers and reassuring blessings” which his own “echo-god” keeps giving him. In an unsettling role reversal, it is the priest who starts confessing his lack of faith to the congregant, and all the while Bergman keeps underscoring the proximity between Tomas and the sculpture of a crucified Jesus hanging behind him on the wall. Christ’s tortured face looks down on his lost disciple with sorrow, and yet he remains as agonisingly silent as the God whose existence is being questioned.  

“If there is no God, would it really make any difference? Life would become understandable. What a relief. And thus death would be a snuffing out of life. The dissolution of body and soul. Cruelty, loneliness, and fear… All these things would be straightforward and transparent. Suffering is incomprehensible, so it needs no explanation. There is no creator. No sustainer of life. No design.”

Bergman is one of cinema’s great blockers of faces – but just note the detail in placing Christ’s tortured face above Tomas’ here. He looks down at the priest, who is in turn distracted and looking at Jonas, who is similarly refusing to look at the person trying to reach him.
A disconnection drawn between layers of the frame, fatefully distancing Tomas and Jonas.
Light starts to shine in the window behind Tomas in this close-up – Bergman is a master of these subtle lighting alterations to change our perception of a character’s expression.

Tomas does not have the awareness of how extreme Jonas’ concerns are to comprehend the danger of what he is saying, and yet the disconnection that Bergman captures between them through his depth of field is just as inconsolable as the priest’s separation from God. Jonas silently exits, and as Bergman shines fresh sunlight through the window behind Tomas’s head, he is also struck with the despairing recognition of what he has done. No more than a few minutes later does he receive the devastating news – Jonas has shot himself in the head with a rifle, leaving behind a mourning family.

Bergman again emphasises the freezing winter exteriors when Tomas comes across Jonas’ body – a severe landscape to match the souls of these characters.

Tomas has little time to process his guilt and console Jonas’ family before pressing forward onto his 3 o’clock service. It is here that Winter Light’s position in Bergman’s unofficial Faith trilogy becomes most evident. This is the second film in a row that sees him refer to God as a “spider”, but even more significantly we find Fredrik the organist mockingly quoting Through a Glass Darkly’s thesis that “Love proves the existence of God.” No longer does this seem like enough evidence for Bergman, who now finds himself wrestling with the part of Tomas, Jonas, and himself so lost in existential dread that even love cannot be found.

A second mass a mere few hours after the first to bookend the film, sending Tomas to preach to an even emptier church than before.

Then again, who can empathise with this fear of total abandonment more than Christ himself, hanging on the cross? This is the allegory that the sexton Algot unknowingly draws to Tomas’ own plight as they prepare for a mass that no one has turned up to, forsaken by men and God alike in their holy mission. Specifically, Algot questions the biblical focus on the physical pain Jesus suffered leading up to his death given its brevity, while the betrayals at the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, and in Peter’s denial were far more torturous.

“He believes everything he’d ever preached was a lie. In the moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship – God’s silence.”

A voice on Märta’s shoulder, forcing her own reckoning with her love for Tomas.

As such, the question of why one must then continue with an empty mass is equated to Jesus’ own following through with a sacrifice for which he is not guaranteed any real reward. This endurance is posed as the very crux of Christian faith, which even Märta is shown to possess in spite of her atheism. A thin sliver of light illuminates her profile as she kneels and prays, consumed in darkness yet nonetheless imploring some higher power for understanding between neighbours.

“If only we could feel safe and dare to show each other tenderness. If only we had some truth to believe in. If only we could believe.”

Immaculate, minimalist lighting as Märta prays – a thin sliver of lighting illuminating her profile as she kneels in reverence.

The answer to Märta’s prayer comes not in some grand gesture of goodwill, but simply the start of the 3 o’clock service, persisting in the absence of any real congregation. It is impossible to fully penetrate the mind of Björnstrand’s lonely pastor in this moment, but Winter Light’s formal bookending of a pair of church services at least suggests the tiniest shred of persevering faith in his soul, offering a link between people and God despite the mutual silence. Who else will keep this hope for salvation alive, if not him?

Much like Tomas, Bergman ends his film with open-ended questions, finding resolution only in the ongoing acceptance that answers may never be found. Perhaps it is ironic that this it was during this production that he later claimed to have lost his faith, and yet the incredible spiritual patience that emerges in both the Christians and atheists of Winter Light uncovers an inerasable, universal belief in human goodness, transcending the most rigid boundaries of organised religion.

Winter Light is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

Hud (1963)

Martin Ritt | 1hr 52min

Perhaps if the story of Hud was set a century earlier in the Old West, its dusty landscapes of low-hanging horizons would have been rendered in dazzling Technicolor, and we might have found John Wayne swaggering through the doors of a saloon with his thumbs hooked in his belt. Instead, Martin Ritt’s bleak, greyscale photography captures this rural environment with a dour austerity, and in place of a traditional Western hero, we find Paul Newman taking the abrasive, hyper-masculine archetype to its logical conclusion. It is apparent to any mature adult who spends more than ten minutes with him that his charm is only surface deep though, as while there is no direct correlation between his moral corruption and his family’s waning livelihood, the formal connection that unites them is not without purposeful intent.

The inspiration that Peter Bogdanovich drew from Ritt’s monochrome vision of small-town, northern Texas is evident in the way that both The Last Picture Show and Hud submit to the slow-paced ennui of everyday life, creating a pair of rural settlements destined to be abandoned within a few decades. Lonely vehicles chug their way down empty roads, rarely venturing any further than the outskirts of town, and there always seems to be a country song floating on a warm breeze, breaking up the lingering, dry silence.

Magnificent establishing shots of the town and ranch, hanging the horizon low in the frame and letting the grey sky dominate.

It isn’t hard to imagine these communities as neighbours either, especially given that both their stories unfold in the early 1950s right at the dawn of post-war America. Where the high school students of The Last Picture Show are itching to graduate and escape their tedious lives though, the only teenager we meet in Ritt’s film is strangely content, deluded by Hud’s macho confidence. Lonnie’s departure at the end of the film may mark a melancholy conclusion, but it is also likely the best path forward for him, whisking him away into another world separate from his uncle’s selfish influence.

Ritt fully understands how to use levels in his blocking of actors, towering Newman over the family as they sit and lie beneath him.

The tone is set very early for what kind of man Hud is. If his romantic interest in a married woman or his reckless destruction of delicate flowers aren’t indicative enough of where his moral compass points, then his nefariousness is abundantly clear in his suggestion to his elderly rancher father, Homer, that they sell off their diseased cattle, making them someone else’s problem. For Hud, issues aren’t meant to be solved, but simply pushed onto other people, revealing a complete lack of responsibility on his part. When Homer calls him out on this, his dismissive response only drives that point deeper, painting him out as a self-centred, insecure man hiding behind the good looks and charisma of a Western hero.

“You don’t care about people, Hud. You don’t give a damn about them. Oh, you got all that charm going for ya, and it makes the youngsters wanna be like you. That’s the shame of it, cause you don’t value nothing. You don’t respect nothing. You keep no check on your appetites at all. You live just for yourself, and that makes you not fit to live with.”

Hud in darkness, and Homer lit above him on the stairs – a great stage for this chastisement.

Parallel to the story of his troubled relationships, we find an infectious disease wreaking havoc on his family’s cattle, bringing their small ranch to its knees. There is no hope to be found in this storyline, which follows a steady, downward trajectory towards an inevitable defeat, and yet James Wong Howe’s camera brings a nimble sensitivity to its character dynamics, choosing to hang on the actors’ expressions as they wander their environments. Shots shift smoothly from barren landscapes to tightly staged compositions, building a close relationship between the environment and its settlers, though Ritt’s blocking often sees them hunched over as well, as if physically weakened by its pestilence. These men don’t admit it, but they evidently accepted their defeat a long time ago, and in arrestingly poignant shots like that which introduces us to the ranch with a dead tree branch infested with buzzards, we too can sense an oppressive decay hanging in the air.

Depth of field in Ritt’s blocking, creating shapes and character interactions across layers of the frame.
Ritt obstructing the shot with a dead, buzzard-infested tree branch – deathly imagery.

Even Elmer Bernstein’s melancholy music score consisting solely of a lightly plucked guitar induces a far more muted tone than the traditionally bombastic orchestras of Hollywood Westerns, stripping its soundscape back to a stream of flowing, minimalist melodies. Just as vitality has been drained from this once-thriving landscape, so too is it sucked from Homer, destroyed by his two greatest creations that have ultimately mounted to nothing – his business, and his son. “It don’t take long to kill things. Not like it does to grow,” he laments not long before his own feeble death, and that sentiment is never felt so sharply as it is when he and his ranch hands are forced to put down their entire herd of cattle.

An excellent piece of staging from Ritt in a moment of quiet tragedy.

Ritt directs the start of this scene like a sombre funeral procession, spending several minutes rounding up the livestock and driving them into a pit without a single word of dialogue. Around the edges, he stages Homer and his ranch hands like mourners watching the lowering of a loved one’s coffin, though these proceedings are far grimmer than any religious ceremony. When the preparations are finally made, the silence is broken by two words – “Start shootin’” – and the scene erupts into cruel, bleak violence, landing each cut in Ritt’s vicious editing like its own merciless bullet.

A bleak, lingering scene as the cattle are driven into their grave, and then breaking the quiet with the devastating massacre.
Ritt blocking his actors like John Ford, using the levels of his terrain to create a gorgeous composition.

With the family business destroyed, Homer laid to rest, and Lonnie gone for good, there is little left for Hud in this small town. For a man as stubbornly independent as him though, perhaps that doesn’t even matter. Just like the infectious disease that killed off his family’s cattle, he too will continue to spread his own pain and anger to those around him, callously destroying the proud legacy that his own ancestors spent several lifetimes nurturing. More than anyone else in town, he is truly the child of an Old West mythology that bred self-reliant individualism into its men, but which failed to instil in them the heart and compassion of its greatest heroes, thereby creating the means of its own, sad downfall.

Low horizons, wide shots, and sparse mise-en-scène makes for austere imagery.

Hud is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Charade (1963)

Stanley Donen | 1hr 55min

With its elaborate action set pieces, exhilarating espionage plot, and a debonair Cary Grant calling back to his North by Northwest character, one might be forgiven for thinking that Charade is Alfred Hitchcock’s wish fulfilment of finally working with Audrey Hepburn. Working in tandem with these plot devices though is a screwball liveliness not typically associated with the master of suspense, sending Grant and Hepburn on a romantic rollercoaster through intimate entanglements and creative visual gags. Stanley Donen may not belong among the great auteurs, but in Charade’s airy, colourful comedy we can still see the mark of the classical Hollywood moviemaker and musical-lover, teasing out a light-hearted battle of the sexes amid conspiracies of fraud, theft, and murder.

It isn’t long after Hepburn’s Paris-dwelling American expat, Reggie, learns of her husband’s death that the treachery of his past misdeeds narrows in on her. Charles was not a man she knew terribly well or loved a great deal, but his death regardless leaves her as the benefactor of an illegal, secret fortune that three mysterious men are now pursuing. It would seem her only ally would be a suave, fellow American she has met in France, Peter – or is it Alex, or Adam? Grant switches identities so many times in Charade that we never really know where his loyalties lie, and yet there is an affable ease in his performance that constantly reassures us of his gentle fondness for Reggie, winning our trust even when his actions haven’t earned it. Narrative twists and developments come at us quickly, keeping us in the grip of Peter Stone’s thrilling screenplay, but when we see Grant shower with his clothes on in an act of playful humour, it isn’t hard to see why Reggie is so utterly charmed.

Grant combines his debonair screen persona with his comedy chops as the mysterious man who goes by many names.

Soon enough, the mystery of Charles’ murder escalates into an Agatha Christie And Then There Were None-type whodunnit, driving an uneasy tension through the steady elimination of suspects and a series of spectacularly staged confrontations. Though these stand-offs often unfold in wonderfully Hitchcockian fashion, Donen rejects studio sets in favour of real locations around Paris, creating striking backdrops out of authentic storefronts, skylines, and historical architecture.

Location shooting makes such a sizeable impact in this thriller, creating tangible backdrops of Paris’ architecture and streets.

Behind a shining neon sign on the roof of the American Express office, Grant engages in a physical struggle with one of Reggie’s mysterious stalkers, while Donen’s high and low angles dramatically underscore the sheer altitude and danger. Through the Varenne metro station, Donen suspensefully cuts between Reggie and her pursuer, turning the underground into a sprawling, modern labyrinth. Outside the Palais-Royal, a colonnade becomes a battleground between good and evil, with both sides shooting at each other from behind columns. Most resourcefully of all, the climax moves into the Théâtre-Français, where the orchestra pit, prompt box, and stage become an interactive terrain that both sides creatively wield against each other. Where Hitchcock often returned to iconic British and American monuments as the basis of his set pieces, Donen infuses Charade with an air of Parisian romance and peril, and balances it precariously on the edge of both.

Office buildings, subways, palaces, theatres – Paris’ landmarks become the location of various chases and confrontations, binding the narrative close to its cultural context.

Integral to this tension is the eclectic film score Henry Mancini pulls together, combining the syncopated rhythms of electric keyboards, percussion, and saxophones with orchestral hints of the James Bond-like theme. As we traverse Paris, a broader pastiche of continental cultures emerges in his soundtrack as well, incorporating instruments and harmonies from Eastern European and Latin musical traditions. With the discovery that the conspiracy surrounding Charles’ hidden fortune has its roots in World War II espionage, the international flavours of Mancini’s soundscape progressively reflect the film’s broadening scope, building out its lively, capricious setting.

A thin strip of light shone across the interior of Reggie’s home stripped bare, isolating her in the frame.
Glorious high angles inside the hotel corridors where Reggie is staying, shaping smart compositions with the use of its arched doorways and lighting.

This is not to suggest that Charade lacks focus though, as Donen has sharp intent behind his choices of camera angles and lighting, carving out images of loneliness and intrigue from elegant compositions inside French interiors. So too does his tightly paced editing do well to follow the exhilarating action of each set piece, spill one crucial epiphany forth in a rapid montage, and in the very final shot, land a brilliant punchline in a split screen grid, playing on Grant’s multiple identities. Donen’s mix of calculated storytelling, screwball antics, and authentic location shooting makes for a fascinating blend of tones, and yet he skilfully integrates all three into Charade with enchanting ease, embellishing what could have been a more serious genre film with pieces of his own buoyant affect.

A 9-way split screen landing a punchline with the film’s ending, displaying Grant’s multiple identities throughout the film.

Charade is currently streaming on Mubi, Kanopy, and Binge, and is available to buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

8 1/2 (1963)

Federico Fellini | 2hr 18min

Common wisdom says that 8 ½ is titled after the number of films Federico Fellini had directed at this point in his career, the total consisting of six previous features, two shorts, one co-directing effort, and this, his most autobiographical, self-reflexive piece of cinema yet. Had none of those fallen into place, it would have been represented as an entirely different numeral, but instead we get this incomplete fraction, stuck between integers as if waiting to be filled in. The same could be said of the two Italian directors connected to this film, with both the fictional Guido and real-life Fellini reflecting on the pressures of fame, religion, art, and relationships tugging them in multiple directions without a clear, unifying principle which they can follow through on. Thanks to their professional careers, they are familiar with the unique suffering that comes with overactive imaginations trying to sort through fragmented lives of excess, but there is also an irony that this profession is one of the few that can manifest a catharsis for the issues it is responsible for. It is not so simple as projecting one’s crippling insecurities up on large, flickering canvases, but it rather arrives through humbling self-examination, opening one’s mind up to a world that may either praise the genius it sees or eviscerate it for a lack of inspiration.

For Guido, there are few nightmares worse than this claustrophobic social anxiety. Caught in the middle of a traffic jam, he bangs on the windows of his car as if suffocating from the stagnation, while the silent witnesses of neighbouring vehicles passively watch his struggle with cold, bored expressions. Quite eerily, there are no engines to be heard on this busy stretch of road, and neither do we see any close-ups of Guido’s panicked face, which might have otherwise oriented us more clearly in the scene. Even his escape and liberating ascent into the sky are eventually spoiled by a man looping a rope around his ankle, tethering him to the earth like a kite that can only soar so far before crashing back down. When he awakes, the surrealism dissipates, and yet Fellini still holds back from revealing the face of his surrogate, multi-tasking his medical examinations and creative consultations. It is not until he is able to get some time to himself in a bathroom that he is revealed in full, and that Marcello Mastroianni’s perturbed, restless performance finally starts to lift off.

One of the greatest opening scenes of cinema history, with Fellini dipping us right into the film’s remarkable surrealism. A suffocating traffic jam, a liberating flight, and a rope pulling us back to the ground, all without revealing Guido’s face.

Even at the spa retreat where Guido hopes to compose himself before embarking on the production of his next film, there is little hope that he will find the peace that he desires. Journalists, casting directors, crew members, sycophants, agents, and fans turn up to the resort with questions ranging from the trivial to the overly invasive, and none of them are particularly helpful in curing his director’s block. It is not an issue of funding or resourcing, but he is simply not mentally prepared to offer up anything of value to his audiences. In Fellini’s own career, La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ mark the point where he begins to veer further away from his roots in neorealism, and so it is not difficult to imagine himself in Guido’s position facing a culture of excessive fame and materialism, trying to create something grounded in real world issues. The result is a psychological dive into his own self-critical mind, picking apart this exact struggle in lavishly designed sets that don’t even bother trying to conceal his own abundant wealth and privilege.

Far from his neorealist roots, Fellini indulges in his ravishing Italian architecture and decor, building Guido up as a man of great wealth and privilege.

Out on the resort’s blanched white terrace, patrons gather beneath umbrellas and in lines for mineral water, though Fellini rarely hangs on wide shots long enough for us to adjust to the almost blinding environment. Apparently reality is just as disorientating as Guido’s dreams, as while strangers and associates gaze right down the lens, Fellini’s camera couldn’t get away from them sooner, disengaging and drifting through the surroundings so that their lines of dialogue essentially become voiceovers. Then every so often, a new character steps into the frame, manifesting like a phantom and suddenly readjusting long shots into close-ups. Guido is used to being behind the camera as the observer, not the observed, and Fellini keeps up this persistent anxiety in his jarring visual whiplash, snapping us between characters, priorities, and dreams that can’t quite congeal into anything productive.

Fellini’s highly-exposed photography in the spa terrace set is almost blinding, pulling us abruptly into this daunting social setting.

Criticisms that Guido’s screenplay lacks any “central issue or philosophical stance” haunt him deeply. If art reflects one’s mind, then this director’s block necessarily calls his value as a filmmaker into question. Disappearing into his own fantasies might at times feel like the single most effective way he can run from these feelings, as we observe in one dream where a harem of women fall at his feet, offering him a power over those in his life he feels threatened by, and yet an unfiltered, self-critical imagination can be an unwieldy thing. Just as it is an endless source of creativity, so too can it spiral off in egotistic directions or turn against the dreamer themselves, as these women do when they catch onto Guido’s misogynistic attitudes.

Fellini’s camera pans across scenes without gaining a firm sense of geography, instead crowding his foreground with extras looking right down the lens.
Sharp distinctions between foreground and background, as faces suddenly move into the frame.

Another layer of Guido’s psyche offers portals into his past, though they are rarely so straightforward as to be direct representations. While his deceased parents make frequent appearances, in his mind they are slippery, malleable figures, with his mother manifesting after he makes love to his paramour, weeping over his sexual vices. This shame seems to be tied to his sexual development as an adolescent, when he and his schoolmates paid La Saraghina, a prostitute who lived in a shack down at the local beach, to dance for them. The Catholic guilt beaten into him by the school priests is instrumental in shaping his awkward relationship with religion, as in the modern day he is still trying to appease a Monsignor imposing Christian morality upon his film, but his mother’s dramatic sobbing also binds every sexual experience of his life from here on to this Freudian angst.

Daunting religious imagery as we slip back into Guido’s childhood, with these Catholic priests asserting their dominance and setting him on a path of guilt.
The spa sauna becomes a confessional for Guido, with this white sheet hung up like the divider between the priest and penitent. Fellini’s creativity with his symbolism is endlessly impressive.

Even above his desire to create art is his need to be loved and affirmed, not just by a select few, but by everyone – the religious, the secular, the fans looking for entertainment, the critics looking for intellectualism, and even his deceased parents, who continue withholding their affection in death. The arrival of an actress he believes is ideal for a role paradoxically described as “young and ancient, a child yet already a woman” does little to assuage his insecurities, as even while he venerates her as some abstract concept, she cuts him down in recognising the character he has based on himself as being incapable of love. Placating even one person is an impossible task, let alone the hundreds of people begging for answers, and therein lies the source of his creative block. “Everything happens in my film. I’m going to put everything in,” he proclaims, but in catering to the desires of so many others, there is nothing truly authentic or honest about his artistic expression. In his impossible endeavour, he has become a walking paradox: a director with no direction.

Finally, the day of shooting arrives for Guido, and he has to practically be dragged on set against his will. Once again, the crowds of journalists, critics, and crew are present, blasting him with questions of political, tabloid, and spiritual natures. “Can you admit you have nothing to say?” one man cruelly jabs, as Fellini’s frenetic editing and score keeps trying to build to a climax. “Just say anything,” he is advised, but still, there is nothing that comes from his mouth. Within the crowd, his wife, Luisa, is present in her wedding dress, taunting him with memories of happier days, and above them all is the giant rocket launchpad set piece, standing like a hulking steel monument to his own meaningless ambition and restricted imagination, offering empty promises of space-bound adventures.

A giant set piece promising great narrative catharsis for both 8 1/2 and Guido’s own film.
Fellini deliberately dismantles the continuity in his editing, breaking eye lines and the 180-degree camera rule to completely disorientate us.

Beneath its menacing shadow, the only feasible solution seems to be a clean, sharp gunshot to the head. At first, this suicide seems to be nothing but another dramatic diversion from reality, adding one more drop to the sea of memory and dreams that Fellini traverses with such elusive grace, and which keeps obscuring the boundaries between Guido’s inner and outer lives. Symbolically though, it is a perfect merging of the two. What is missing here is the explicit reveal that he has aborted production on the film, which we are left to surmise in the following scene when we return to reality. In killing his failed project, he kills the part of himself that simultaneously strives to live to impossible expectations and scorns the people setting those standards.

It is perfectly fitting to 8 ½’s cinematic form that Guido’s monologue announcing his fresh perspective is not the focus of these final minutes, but instead simply underscores a grand, visual sequence that could only ever be rendered through this artistic medium. Out on this open plain, those people who make up his identity and history begin to congregate, for the first time uniting in a single location. “How right it is to accept you, to love you. And how simple,” he ponders, as men in tuxedos shout to crew members standing up on lighting rigs, who turn their beams towards the launchpad.

“Life is a party, let’s live it together. I can’t say anything else, to you or others. Take me as I am, if you can. It’s the only way we can try to find each other.”

Though his lips are not moving with his voiceover, Luisa can hear him perfectly, and between the two estranged spouses, there finally seems to be some sincere attempt at understanding. It is only in shaking off his constant need for approval that he is able to connect with others in any meaningful way, accepting them as they are and, in turn, allowing him to present his honest self to the world without shame.

Dreams and reality blend in conversations like these, with Guido’s dialogue playing out in voiceover to what may be an imaginary Luisa.

Not far away from the site of this epiphany, a small, ragtag marching band of carnival performers parade towards the set’s scaffolding, and then all of a sudden, a set of makeshift white curtains are pulled back. Behind them, every single character we have met throughout 8 ½, major or minor, pours down the steps of this magnificent launch pad as if attending some grand carnival directed by Guido, who conducts them all in a single, unifying fantasy. As the fragments of his lives piece together in a giant circle and spin around the set, Fellini’s avant-garde visuals become expressions of communal delight, rather than unsettling isolation. Creativity and creation are two different concepts that are not always in sync, but in lining these up through the filter of Fellini’s own wildly surreal stylings, 8 ½ stands as history’s most brilliantly compelling piece of self-reflexive cinema, seeking to examine the arduous processes of its own construction.

Fragments of Guido’s life finally piecing together in this magnificent crescendo of carnival music, with him finally taking the role of director.
Guido’s past, present, faith, secularity, artistry, ambition, insecurities, and relationships finally reconciled in a single joyful display of unity.

8 1/2 is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

Contempt (1963)

Jean-Luc Godard | 1hr 43min

During his peak of activity in the 1960’s, Jean-Luc Godard took a brief respite from sending up beloved Hollywood genres to aim his incisive wit towards the “gods” of storytelling themselves, be they Greek poets or contemporary filmmakers. The tension between the ancient and the modern is evident in Contempt as writers, directors, producers, and actors argue amongst themselves, trying to determine the motivation that drove Odysseus’ epic ten-year adventure across the eastern Mediterranean. It is indeed a curious thing that so many ancient myths take the emphasis off the internal journeys and onto the external, and yet this allows for some universality in which individuals can imprint themselves on these legendary figures. In the case of these artists making a film adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, it is the perfect story upon which they can map their own relationships and ambitious endeavours.

Playfully postmodern with ancient Greek art and mythology. These cutaways of coloured in sculptures against a blue sky set them like gods of storytelling.

Cutaways of Greek god statues with their eyes and lips coloured in with reds and blues run through the film, as Godard’s low angles powerfully frame them against the sky. In fact, Contempt’s mise-en-scène may be his most classical we have seen to date, even as Godard’s primary “French” colours keep bursting through in its set dressing and lighting. Back at the apartment of Brigitte Bardot’s actress, Camille, and Michel Piccoli’s playwright, Paul, the occasional bright blue chair or red towel worn like a toga pierces the beige, modern architecture, marking the breakdown of their relationship as a tale just as fresh as it is old, woven into the archetypes of human storytelling. Is it sexual jealousy that has driven them apart, or rather a loss of respect for Paul’s integrity as an artist? Was Odysseus’ journey driven by a faithless wife back home, an indifference to her growing contempt for him, or something else altogether?

Colours and staging in this mid-section of the film, breaking down a troubled relationship.

Unable to agree on the source of their own woes, Camille and Paul are driven to the extreme ends of Godard’s compositions, divided by huge amounts of negative space in the walls and door frames of their accommodation. Even when the two finally come face to face, it is as if they can’t stand to be captured in the same image together, as Godard’s camera instead shifts side-to-side in close-ups of their profiles. This ebb and flow between casual conversation and shouting takes up a full half hour of the film’s modest 100-minute run time, letting them attempt some sort of direct expression of their feelings before returning to the film set for the remaining third.

In the villa where the shoot is taking place, several of Contempt’s characters venture up a cascade of steps to a flat rooftop, overlooking the same Mediterranean Sea which played host to the hero of Homer’s epic poem. Godard knows what he has with this gorgeous set piece as he returns to it over and over, further isolating his characters in long shots as lonely, modern idols wandering a corner of the Earth so famous for its stories. The potential to contribute to the mythos of humanity is right there for the taking, but for those who degrade it with their visions of dishonest, crude entertainment, it ultimately holds nothing but contempt.

Arguably Godard’s greatest set piece, this villa rooftop looking out over the Mediterranean Sea like a platform to the heavens.

Contempt is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.