Year of release: 1961 Directed by Ingmar Bergman. Starring Harriet Andersson, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, and Lars Passgård.
“Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.
“Sooner or later I must face the question in plain language. What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good’? Doesn’t all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite? What have we to set against it?” – C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, chapters 1 & 2 respectively
In wrestling with the grief caused by the death of his wife, C. S. Lewis gave voice to some of the darkest fears and notions that anyone can experience in a life of faith: not that there is no God, but that He’s a cruel, heartless sadist. Ingmar Bergman’s “faith trilogy” wrestles with similar questions, wondering how an omnipotent being could also be all good.
Through a Glass Darkly serves as the opening film of the trilogy. The title is a very obvious reference to 1 Corinthians 13:12, indicating the (very slightly) more optimistic outlook of this film compared to the two that follow it—Winter Light and The Silence, the titles alone which suggest the dimming light and dying faith of their protagonists and their director.
However, Through a Glass Darkly holds onto hope of one day seeing face to face, acknowledging both the terror and joy of such a possibility.
The frightening potential of beholding God can be seen through Karin (Harriet Andersson), a mentally ill woman who believes her schizophrenic episodes are visions of God. Her final vision—a frightful and horrific analogy of God as an attacking spider that is further explored in Bergman’s subsequent two films, which led to them being labeled a trilogy along with this one—is starkly reminiscent of Lewis’ line, “Deceive yourself no longer.”
At the same time the arc of Karin’s younger brother Minus (Lars Passgård) shows the hope and joy of direct communication with God. After spending the majority of the film trying to please his emotionally and physically distant father David (Gunnar Björnstrand) and having his relationship with his sister fall apart in increasingly destructive ways, the final scene is a heartfelt face to face exchange with his father about the nature of God. Minus’ takeaway is one of the most startling lines in the film, which summarizes everyone’s need to give and receive love, not just with other people but with God as well.
The lone outsider to this dysfunctional family is Karin’s husband Martin (Max von Sydow), who has clearly understood the “for worse” part of his vows. He confides to David that after Karin was released from the mental hospital, the doctors told him she would never recover. Her illness takes an increasing toll on their marriage, and her family is not much support with Minus’ stony disgust toward his sister’s behavior and David’s selfish artistic desire to exploit his daughter’s illness for one of his novels. In spite of this, Martin’s loyalty to Karin never wavers, regardless of the pain outside forces and people bring into their relationship.
I believe that is an additional metaphor for faith. It is a relationship with God, and while outside factors and other people may attempt to poison it, it is still a relationship from which we should not flee. Even if those forces turn it into a burden, faith is still something beautiful and worth preserving.
As the son of a Lutheran pastor, faith and doubt is at the center of many of Bergman’s films, perhaps nowhere more explicitly than in this film, Winter Light, and The Silence. The necessity of doubt as a means to enrich one’s faith, or learning to see with clouded vision, is captured through the insecurities and harshness of the world which the characters here inhabit.
Karin’s mental illness compounds those insecurities, and her explanation that voices tell her what to do may seem as if Bergman is saying religion is a form of mental illness, especially since her final breakdown is caused by her encounter with her malevolent notion of “god.” However, Bergman follows that scene with a moment of salvation for all the characters, which can first be heard approaching in the midst of the Karin’s encounter with the spider god.
It is this moment of salvation where the notion that God is Love starts, but only starts, to become clear. Prior to that, any role of the divine in the lives of the characters was seen, in the words of the title, through a glass darkly. That darkness was intensified by the unhealthy ways Karin, as well as her lonely brother and workaholic father, sought love. In the end, Love wants her healthy and for the family to have a functional relationship.
A lakeside family visit that goes to hell is not an unusual premise for a film, but Bergman’s use of that setting to depict a literal walk through hell with all its doubts and uncertainties creates two parallel journeys about doubt and mental illness that coalesce at the same rock bottom moment. Both trajectories are beautifully captured by Sven Nykvist’s quietly observant camera, inviting us to reflect on what’s before us, but also reminding us there’s more out of the frame that cannot be easily explained.
To continue the Bible verse referenced in the title, for now, we and the protagonists know in part, and when faced with the evil in their lives, it may remain that way. However, there are tangible moments of goodness and grace, even if the coexistence of those moments with tragedy seems like a contradiction. Or as a quote from St. Augustine says, “If you are able to comprehend it, it is not God.”
Personal Recommendation: A+