As I watched the long version again (the second time in 2 1/2 months), I was struck by the utter ambiguity in the relationship between imagination, magic, and even divine intervention. The scene that got me thinking along these lines was one I had forgotten, from the final act. During the rescue of the children, after Isak has put them into the chest, Edvard makes his way to the nursery, in what we expect will be a scene where he discovers that the children are missing.Instead, what he finds are the children laying together on the floor with their mother looking over them – yet we know they have been placed in the chest. How can they be two places at once? It seems to me there are several ways of looking at this scene, which I think Bergman purposefully leaves ambiguous, as he does many other scenes like it in the film.
The options: First, it could be that somehow either Isak or Emilie snuck puppets into the house, and during the intervening moments, snuck those puppets into the room. Of course, the puppets would have originated with Aron, and either come in with Isak, or through him to Emilie in secret. Second, it could be some kind of magic or other illusion, as we see Aron talk with Alexander about the breathing mummy. Third, it could be in Isak’s imagination. As he falls to the ground, the camera focuses in on him, as if these are his thoughts at this moment. And when Edvard goes upstairs, Isak calls in the boys for outside to carry the chest. Finally, it seems this could even be an instance of divine intervention of some sort. Isak falls to his knees and looks up, as if he could be praying. And in this moment of all moments, God intervenes.
The thing about all these options, is I think there’s no way to know for sure which is which. And this is part of the greatness of this film. You see, this is where we all are with reference to what we know about God in the world. We see all kinds of strange and unexplainable things, some of these miraculous, some not so much. Some of these yield good things in the immediate, some do not. Yet much as we might like to attribute this or that to the hand of God or some other force or even our own imagination, it seems that in the end, none of us can make such a call for sure. We might like to believe it’s this way or that way, but believing is all we can do. And as finite human beings, living with this belief or faith is the tension we have to live with, it seems to me.
Bergman captures this ambiguity beautifully all through the film, with all the scenes of ghosts, imagined or otherwise, and other strange occurrences. His protagonist finds himself right in the middle of that ambiguity, and is ultimately unsure of what to do with it. Bergman as writer and director doesn’t seem to want to account for it with imagination, or God, or magic. He just leaves these things in tension, without any steps of faith in any of these directions.