Ingmar Bergman won his second Best Foreign Film Oscar for the moody family drama Through a Glass Darkly. It is the first of what came to be called his "chamber dramas," which positioned four characters in one place where they could interact like a string quartet. It has also been referred to as the first of his trilogy of faith, followed by Winter Light and The Silence, dealing with issues of God and love. Shot in black-and-white and running only 90 minutes long, the film opens with a quote from the book of Corinthians. Suffering from severe mental illness, Karin (Harriet Andersson) has just been released from a psychiatric hospital. She vacations for a summer on an island with her family to help speed up her recovery, but they can't offer the support that she needs. Her father, David (Gunnar Björnstrand), is a clinical and detached writer; her husband, Martin (Max Von Sydow), is a doctor unable to assist her illness; and her brother, Minus (Lars Passgård), is sexually coming of age and dealing with his own emotional problems. Karin's condition worsens and she thinks a spider is God. It has been argued that the script for Through a Glass Darkly was influenced by Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story, The Yellow Wallpaper.
The first of Ingmar Bergman's trilogy that includes Winter Light and The Silence, Through a Glass Darkly is a stunning and bleak character study of a family disintegrating both in spite of and because of its "best" efforts to stay together. It is also a study of the existence of God or the lack thereof, and the desperate need for love and the near impossibility of attaining the same. Through a Glass Darkly is an astonishing cinematic experience, one that is painful but so involving that most viewers will submit to the experience willingly. Still, it is not without its flaws. Gunnar Björnstrand's performance seems somewhat out of kilter with the piece, as if the actor did not understand the character's role in the drama, and Lars Passgård's role is a little too surface-oriented; he knows what he's doing but doesn't seem totally committed. However, Max Von Sydow hits all the right notes, and Harriet Andersson is nothing less than brilliant, giving a fully realized and amazingly detailed performance that anchors the picture. If the script's ending is a trifle over-explained, the rest of the screenplay is a model of nuanced, balanced writing, and Bergman's direction is intense and taut throughout. Sven Nykvist's subtle cinematography, with beautifully framed compositions and long, slow pans, is an invaluable aid; the opening shot of calm, placid water disturbed by the family's arrival sets the tone of the picture in an instant. A searing examination of alienation and loneliness, Through a Glass Darkly is a powerful film that leaves a lasting impression.
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