Fanny and Alexander is often described as Bergman’s masterpiece. But to call masterpiece only one of Bergman’s films from his consistently astounding oeuvre is to underestimate the rest of his body of work. For Bergman’s whole output is one organic masterpiece. Let’s settle for Fanny and Alexander as a synthesis of his cinematic vision.
Released in 1982, Fanny and Alexander is perhaps one of his most accessible works and won four Oscars in 1982, including Best Foreign film. It is a tale about family bonds, but not an imposed type of blood tie. The Ekdahls genuinely love each other and the chemistry of their love is one of the most intense visual translations of affection ever committed to the screen. Most importantly, that is achieved without saccharine orchestral crescendos or larger-than-life displays of emotion. It seems to come from within the film itself, or as one of the characters says, ‘from a very deep part of her.’
Fanny & Alexander is set at the beginning of the twentieth century in Bergman’s own home town of Uppsala. It starts with a Christmas celebration at the Ekdahl’s colourful family home, a thespian clan headed by Helena Ekdahl (Gunn Wallgren). The first part of the film is a long sequence of private moments in bedrooms, which Bergman use to reveal the humanity of several characters that form the intricate narrative tapestry that unfolds on the screen. Among them are the eight-year-old Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and the 10-year-old Alexander (Bertil Guve), whose lives are turned around when their father Oskar (Allan Edwall) dies. Their mother Emilie then marries the puritanical and evil local bishop (Jan Malmsjö) and the children find themselves locked away in room formerly inhabited the bishop’s daughters who drowned in a river with their mother.
The bishop’s house is a graphic representation of repression, reminiscent of children’s dark fairy-tales, a house inhabited by witch-like spinsters who eavesdrop on other people’s thoughts, a drab, anti-life place dictated by the Protestant denial of sensorial pleasures and art. A year passes (this is signified by an ellipsis), by which time Emilie hates the bishop because of his cruel treatment of her children. She’s trapped, though, because he won’t give her a divorce.
When all seems lost, an old Jewish friend of the family steps into the fray to rescue the children from the clutches of the bishop’s iron hand (the bishop already looks quite mad at this point) and the magic realist events triggered off by the Jew’s relieving appearance carry the film to its optimistic, soothing end.
It takes someone with a deep understanding of the human condition to make a film like Fanny and Alexander . Although Bergman operates within the realm of his Scandinavian background, his films, and this one especially, is a universal paean to individual freedom and family love, secularism against repressive religion and soul-less Puritanism. Bergman’s use of film language is also a wonder to behold: his transition shots are always perfect and laden with poetic connotations; the meditative flow of the film turns the smallest of gestures into eloquent revelations. This film is about magic and it comes from Bergman himself, cinema’s greatest magician.
Fanny and Alexander opens on 30 December at the Renoir Cinema in London and screens to 22 January.