One of my favorite characters in this film only appears in the first scene. We open in a small rural church in Sweden, as Tomas (Gunnar Bjornstrand) sleepily presides over a very sparsely-attended Mass; only seven people are there, six adults and one child. And while the adults all sit quietly, giving Tomas varying degrees of attention, the child is either falling asleep, playing with a teddy bear, or – out of sheer boredom – licking the pew in front of them. ….I grew up Catholic, and I have been that kid.
My own childhood boredom came from youthful ignorance, though – deep philosophical questions don’t necessarily come to you when you’re only about seven. But in this congregation’s case, Tomas is giving a really lackluster Mass; everything feels rote, only one of the congregants seems to be there out of devotion rather than habit, Jonas and Karin Perrson (Max Von Sydow and Gunnel Lindblom, respectively) seem preoccupied with something, and even the organist keeps checking his watch. It’s clear most of the people in that room would rather be somewhere else. And Ingmar Bergman lets this Mass scene stretch on for a good ten minutes, so we feel every second of this desultory Mass creep slowly by and are elated when it’s over. Sunday mass is supposed to be a joyous weekly high point for the faithful, but for everyone here, it’s just a boring chore.
And that, as we learn, is precisely the point. For Tomas has been having a crisis of faith for four years now, brought on by the death of his wife. Sure, he’s been occasionally hooking up with Marta (Ingrid Thulin), the local schoolteacher, but that’s more just a hookup. Even though she does occasionally also help him out with church duties or housekeeping stuff; it’s nothing serious, he doesn’t love her. And she’s atheist anyway, and the few times they’ve talked religion it’s made him uneasy because he’s started to think she has a point, and it’s made his doubt even worse.
And on this particular afternoon, following this Mass, things come to a bit of a head – the Perrsons drop in after Mass seeking Tomas’ counsel, since Jonas has been having some dark thoughts and Karin’s worried about him. Karin leaves them to talk in privacy, and Jonas confesses to suicidal thoughts, partly brought on by his own crisis of faith and partly the general pitiful state of the world. But Tomas isn’t able to offer more than some vague platitudes about faith in response – a faith he doesn’t seem to feel himself. And then he reads a letter from Marta she’s slipped him – one in which she passionately confesses that she’s found faith at last, but in Tomas, not in God. But can he return that faith, and in whom should he place it?
This is a slower-paced film, and it’s slower-paced for a reason. Its characters are examining questions that they really need to take their time with; a lifetime’s worth of thought, not just the couple hours between the morning and the afternoon Mass. Sometimes these questions are really scary. And sometimes the characters aren’t happy with the answers, and therein lies the tragedy in this film. This was one of three films Bergman made which address the question of faith, and this one takes a rather pessimistic view of things.
I’m not going to give away the ending; instead, I’m going to discuss two other things that the ending reminded me of, and those takes on the questions raised here.
I recently finally had the chance to see Martin Scorcese’s film Silence, in which Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson are 17th Century Jesuit priests covertly trying to spread Christianity in Japan at a time when Christianity was outlawed. One question Andrew Garfield’s character wrestles with is why God doesn’t seem to answer him when he calls out for help. Is it that God is suffering along with him, but is staying silent to keep him safe? Or is it that God isn’t even listening and he’s actually all alone?
A book I read years ago may have its own take on that question, and also shed some light on Winter Light as well. Cal is about a young Irish Catholic man in Ulster, at a time during the Northern Irish “Troubles”; Cal is loosely affiliated with the IRA, but a crisis of conscience (among other things) has been spurring him to get out. At one point in the book, Cal reflects on something a priest told him about how people ended up in Hell – that when we get to Heaven, some of us are so ashamed of ourselves and our life’s misdeeds that we can’t face God, and we tap out, unable to let ourselves reach out to God for forgiveness. We cut ourselves off from God forever as opposed to God doing it. And to a degree, that’s true of everyone in this film – they fumblingly try to reach out to each other or to God, but often their reach falls short – but maybe it’s because they’ve been pulling their hands back at the last minute all along.