Ingmar Bergman fascinates me. He is not as much of an entertainer as he is an academic, and his movies are less works of art than they are strenuous, challenging studies of difficult topics. Of course he is an artist and his movies are entertaining but not in the familiar tradition of escapist fantasy or movies designed for you to take a date to. Do not take a date to a Bergman film, unless you want to spend the rest of the evening sitting in silent despair, wondering what the point of it all is.
Perhaps this is why it takes me so long to watch through Bergman's collection of work. Nearly every movie of his that I've seen could stand as a testament, a landmark to a specific passage in my life. Like a great Russian novel, Bergman demands patience and effort, and the experience is exhausting long before it is over.
Great art challenges you and forces you to grow. Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, whose movies would make for a monolithically challenging double feature with Bergman's, said, "The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good." If this is the case, and I do believe it is, and if there were one movie that should be required viewing for anyone to confront their own mortality, then Cries and Whispers would be that movie.
The film is harrowing and tiresome, burdened with bleakness and pain, suffering from the weight of death at every turn, at times genuinely frightening, perhaps more so than a horror film because unlike horror films, which use scares as a means of confronting and revealing hidden griefs within us, Cries and Whispers only presents us with those very secrets, leaving us afraid of what we might find if we look inside. And yet, in all the turmoil, hope and innocence remains.
There are four women in the film, three of whom are sisters and the fourth who is a servant, but feels more at home with the other women than they do with each other. Agnes is dying and her sisters, Maria and Karin have come to stay with her, along with Anna, her housemaid, who looks after all three of the women. Anna's daughter died many years ago and every morning Anna beseeches her god to look after her daughter. The other women know no such grief in the past and it is only now, watching their sister die that they are confronted with the scale of their loss, not because their sister is dying, but because they have had the misfortune to have to be within proximity of someone dying. Neither of them are capable of comforting Agnes, who repeatedly cries out for someone to hold her. Only Anna can calm Agnes' screams.
The rest of the story is told in bold flashbacks and we see, ever so slowly, that the true loss the sisters have suffered is that of their own lives. Slowly, perhaps even beginning in childhood, each of them began to lose a little bit of themselves. Maria feels nothing for her husband even when he attempts suicide upon discovering her affair. Karin despises her own husband and self-harms not to punish herself or find relief in pain, but simply because she knows it will disgust the man she lives with. Agnes has always been jealous of Maria's relationship with their mother.
After Agnes departs, Karin tells Maria she hates her. She rejects her tender advances and attempts at reconciliation, pushing her away and screaming "don't touch me." Eventually Maria stops trying. In another scene, the two of them hug and caress each other and we see that their relationship has been restored. In another scene, Maria denies that this happens and Karin recoils from her goodbye kiss. There is no sense that these sisters care for each other at all, and this is presented as perhaps the greatest death in the movie.
Anna has a dream in which Agnes returns from death, calling out once more for comfort, from each of her sisters. Karin is horrified and disgusted and leaves nearly as soon as she arrives. Maria tries hard to comfort Agnes but eventually is repulsed by her dead sister. Finally Anna herself strokes Agnes' hair and whispers the distressed soul through her journey into the afterlife. What does this mean? Does the dream tell us of Anna's pure heart or of her jealousy of the sisters? After all, Anna is perceived by the others as lesser than them, and given only a brief thought and an obligatory reward for her services. Only the priest who performs the funeral praises Anna's faith as greater than his own, and indeed, Anna's faith is unwavering in the face of death.
Cries and Whispers is a difficult film to watch and an even more difficult film to understand. It doesn't have answers because it doesn't seem to have questions to begin with. It is a confrontation with mortality, with the death of the body, the death of relationships, and the death of the soul. Yet it is ultimately a hopeful film. It is easy to see why the sisters seem to despise Anna. She is over-willing to serve, she seems to have little strength of character, and she has no one to care for her. As the priest remarks, however, Anna has faith, and maybe that's the point. No matter how ugly things get, Anna gives us hope.