Sometimes, writing about what you claim as your “favourite movie of all time” can be an extremely daunting experience. Given how I’m not the best with words and languages, it’s even harder for me to describe how a particular film stands out more to me than others. This is even more so when the movie is by Ingmar Bergman, perhaps one of the greatest masters of cinematic history. Whenever I write about a Bergman film, I often wonder if I myself fully got what the man wanted to say through his films. Naturally, I do my reviews to the best of my capabilities and write based on what I took away from each of his films. There’s no other film-maker who can dissect and explore the human soul and psyche as efficiently as him, or present the rawest, most intense form of human emotions ever put on screen. Whenever I think about Bergman film, I think about the tension burning through the screen between Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata, or Liv Ullmann’s horrifying mental breakdown in Face to Face, and how these emotions are presented in a 100% realistic manner. Bergman doesn’t seek to entertain; he seeks to present the different facets of the human soul in all of his movies, and yet he rarely comes off as pretentious as some of the “arthouse” directors today.
Cries and Whispers is often regarded as Bergman’s greatest film, and I would agree. The story follows the tensions and secrets that arise when two sisters return to take care of their cancer-stricken sister. Unlike the ubiquitous Hollywood soap-fests and korean dramas about how cancer brings the family together and strengthen bonds, Cries and Whispers challenges that idea of true family love. Sometimes, I feel like the movie is a big FU to all those corny dramas (although it’s made earlier than most of them). It shows how a crisis can easily be the truest reflection of human personality, and how we are intrinsically more selfish than we would like to admit.
With Bergman, you would naturally expect fantastic acting from his performers, and over here they all deliver as usual. To me, it’s always apparent how his actors love working with him, despite being pushed to their extreme limits. The Academy rarely recognizes his actors, and it makes me wonder if it is because they are too real for the Academy to handle. While films like Nashville (1975) aim to represent us, Cries and Whispers takes it a step further by exploring our souls. The characters are just so complex and realistically compelling that it makes the viewers feel uncomfortable. It isn’t a horror film, and yet it is so commonly described as a haunting film, because of how it reminds us of parts of our own nature we would rather ignore.
How many of us have a Maria (played by Liv Ullmann) inside us? The childishness, the superficiality, the need to act like you are the most caring of the lot, only to realise that you are faking all of these in the end? Or to put on a “brave” front and act like the “good guy”, only to realise that you are perhaps even more afraid of the problem than anyone else? Liv Ullmann, as usual, plays Maria fantastically, vacillating between the “loving” image she presents and the cold-hearted bitch she really is.
People often hate on Karin (Ingrid Thulin, my personal best actress pick of 1973 for her work here), but to me she’s the most sympathetic character. Karin appears repressed and is often regarded as a cold-bitch, but she’s the most honest of the all of them. She sees through her sister’s bullshit, and her loneliness, bitterness and inner pain is always apparent. She cannot express herself properly (that self-mutilating scene will stay with you), and is afraid of even the slightest form of human affection. And when she does express herself, it is hateful and filled with anger, like when she lashes out at Maria. Yet despite all these, you can always sense the deep longing and need to be loved by her. It’s extremely disheartening to see her being tossed to one side by Maria not long after their brief “reconciliation”. She’s an extremely complex character that I’m not sure whether I myself got entirely, but she’s always fascinating thanks to Thulin’s tremendous performance.
The other characters are also fascinating despite being the smaller roles. Bergman values each and every one of his players, and it’s his attention to detail that makes his movies such masterpieces. There’s Anna, the maid who lost her daughter, and is eventually revealed to be the only character who has genuinely-cared for the cancer-stricken Agnes all along. Anna is such a quiet character, and yet you can feel her warmth and constant presence in the house.
The technical aspects of the film are actually surprisingly simple, yet highly effective. I wouldn’t say the film has very outstanding costume and set design, but it doesn’t matter at all here as it’s all about the story. The bright red walls of the mansion and the white dresses worn by the characters are striking, but there’s this simplistic beauty of the film that makes its best cinematography Oscar highly deserving. The camera loves the actors, and the way it captures the anguish, pain and sorrows in their faces is simply astounding (The “camera in your face” thing is done so much more effectively than some films today by the way…take note, Tom Hooper).
Cries and Whispers is not for everyone, I won’t deny that. I don’t even blame people for finding it boring, especially since not of all Bergman’s movies appeal to me either. The film is admittedly a very slow one, and there aren’t any outstanding action sequences, long juicy monologues or an epic score to complement it’s story. But there’s something so stirring, devastating and haunting about the film’s simplicity that it has always resonated with me when I watched it. One of the best films of the 70s, 5/5.