In 1982, Swedish legend Ingmar Bergman announced he would be retiring from filmmaking and would concentrate on his first love: theater. His last movie became an event unlike anything seen in his country before, Bergman returned to Sweden from a self-imposed exile in Germany, after a tax-evasion scandal threatened to send him to prison. Press members and film lovers all over the world set their eyes on the production of Fanny and Alexander, a sprawling epic that would draw from Bergman’s own childhood accounts and combine them with fantastical elements. The result was a superb television miniseries spanning 312 minutes, which would then be cut — against Bergman’s original wishes — into a theatrical version to be distributed all over the world.
Said version ended up polarizing critics, but still earned Bergman his last Best Director Oscar nomination (he never won, of course…) and won four Academy Awards. The film has earned the reputation of being one of the most flawless examples of epic movie making done outside of Hollywood. Without a doubt, it’s Bergman’s most accessible film because it forgoes his most persistent, and often dark , themes to go for a more magical representation.
The first and most significant change in this movie is the fact that Bergman has a child as the lead for the first time. Most of his films use children as accessories (The Virgin Spring) or pretty much ignore them, while this one has little Alexander (Bertil Guve) at the center of the story from its opening scene.
Alexander is part of the Ekdahl family, a wealthy clan formed by patrons of the arts, actors and business people who live in the town of Uppsala. We first meet the whole family during Christmas Eve, when Bergman shows off his choreographic abilities by making us feel like we’re part of the festivities. The opening episode in the film sets up a lush tone that will then be subverted to more Bergmanian techniques, when Alexander and his sister Fanny (Pernilla allwin) lose their father (Allan Edwall), event which leads their mother (Ewa Fröling) to marry a vicious bishop (Jan Malmsjö). Their existence goes from fairy tale perfection to Dickensian tragedy as they are subject to the bishop’s cruel ways.
It’s in this drastic transition where Bergman is able to show off his most playful skills, given that Alexander’s only escape from tragedy is his imagination. The film’s plot may not contain the harrowing existentialism of iconic films like The Seventh Seal, but it wouldn’t be fair to say that Bergman tamed down his usual motifs, either. Early on, we see the figure of death in the Ekdahl house; perhaps this is a mere memento mori, instead of an ominous warning.
Fanny and Alexander is usually said to be Bergman’s most autobiographical work, not merely for specific script details (Bergman’s father was a strict Lutheran minister from Uppsala) but because it deals directly with his passion for stage arts and cinema. Through Alexander, the director unleashes a poetic essay on how artists should fulfill the promise they’re born with.
The film opens with Alexander carefully examining a tiny puppet theater (encompassing Bergman’s own world view) and then proceeds to show us how the boy can’t help but tell stories. Whether he’s frightening his cousins with spooky magic lantern tales, or making up lies for his classmates, it’s the passion for creating that seems to antagonize him so much in the eyes of the severe bishop. One of them creates, the other tries to tame creation.
This also rings true for how Alexander is haunted by his father’s ghost. “You are not the Prince of Denmark” says his mother, even if Bergman shows a stage production of Hamlet early during the movie. Is he perhaps suggesting that children are product of their entertainment? or is his denial just another manifestation of an Oedipus complex?
Alexander’s love for storytelling also gives the director a chance to come up with some of his most elaborate setpieces. Teaming once more with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, the scenes are an interplay of lights and shadow, where beauty is just around the corner from evil. Scenes in the bishop’s house highlight the grotesque, while those at the Ekdahls’ contain such warmth that you completely overlook the amorality that goes on within their walls.
Fanny and Alexander is a beautiful ode to childhood and as much as it cherishes its self-regenerating ability, it deals with traumas and the creation of ghosts. However, it also reminds us that as adults we can exorcise these very demons by tapping into what once made us happy.
Extras: The Criterion Collection had already released the miniseries and the theatrical versions in a stunning DVD set, but it’s fair to say that Fanny and Alexander greatly benefits from the wonders of high definition. The movie, which already was a treasure chest of visual joys, becomes absolutely irresistible with the colors and textures popping out like never before. Nykvist’s exquisite work acquires new levels of beauty, with the reds and snowy whites, popping out of the screen.
The centerpiece of the extras is The Making of Fanny and Alexander, a feature length documentary directed by Bergman himself, that shows lovely behind the scenes moments, as well as highlights its director’s genius. Watching the master direct the children, in particular, is as beautiful as anything contained in the final product.
Also included are A Bergman Tapestry, a retrospective look at the movie featuring the actors and crew members and a conversation between Bergman and film critic Nils Petter, in which the director looks back at his career as he bids farewell to cinema. Other features include a booklet with brilliant essays, an image gallery showcasing the art direction and costume design, and a theatrical trailer.
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