The second of Bergman’s “Faith Trilogy,” Winter Light has always been my favorite. Seeing it again last week (though for the first time with an audience), rekindled and deepened my appreciation and love for the film.As I’ve said about Bergman before, what I most appreciate about him is how he frames the big questions of life. I’m not always excited about where he ends up, but the questions take on such a great significance in his films, and they are asked so precisely, with such a keen attention to detail, that I can’t help but appreciate what he’s doing.
This is especially so in Winter Light, during which Pastor Tomas (Gunnar Björnstrand) doubts his faith, and about halfway through the film, “frees” himself from it, adopting an atheism that he asserts “makes sense” of everything. You see, Tomas is overwhelmed with the randomness of existence, not understanding why his wife has been taken from him (she died several years earlier). So he adopts an atheism which embraces the randomness and meaninglessness of life. Nothing really matters, he doesn’t have to care for anyone, and now he can go about his business without the weight of having to make sense of everything because there’s some orderly God in heaven running this world.
Yet on this viewing, I note three specific things that happen after Tomas declares his freedom – three things that call his decision into question. First, he makes his atheistic declaration during one of the more beautiful shots of the film, in front of a large window with the sun shining through it. As Tomas has just made his decision to leave his faith behind, he steps in front of the light, briefly blocking it from our view. Yet almost as soon as he does this, he is forced to the ground by a coughing fit. The light shines back through.
Second, later in the schoolroom with Märta (Ingrid Thulin), Tomas again asserts that he cares about nothing. Märta, a professing atheist, seems strangely troubled by all this. This is one of those places where Bergman’s questions are so rigorously framed. In light of Tomas’ embrace of the meaningless, Märta sees right through him, and asks a stinging question (though the question pains Tomas, she delivers it with a gentle grace). “The question, paraphrased here: “Did you love your wife?” Tomas, repelled by the suggestion he didn’t love her, fires back quickly and forcefully that he did. Clearly there is to be no discussion on this point. Yet Märta has seen the inconsistency in his embrace of the meaningless: His newfound atheism asserts a meaningless existence, yet there is still evidence of meaning in his heart even then. He cannot escape the light that pursues him.
Finally, we go backwards just a bit to the scene when Tomas waits with the body of Jonas (Max von Sydow). This scene stands out from the rest in a very peculiar way – its volume. This is the film’s loudest moment, so much so that we cannot even hear the characters speak to one another. The noise, of course, comes from the rushing river in the background. Tomas has already declared his newfound atheism, yet at this crucial moment, we (and presumably he) cannot think of anything but the raging river in the background.
In the final scene of the movie, Tomas begins the service with the quotation of Isaiah 6:3: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” This particular passage speaks directly to that earlier scene near the river. Just after Tomas has made his atheistic declaration, the first time he leaves the church, he ends up at the side of a raging river, which according to this verse in Isaiah, declares the glory of God. He cannot escape the light that pursues him. This is evident in the final scene at the church at Frostnäs, which is filled with light of all kinds – electricity, the sun, lit candles. Bergman seems to emphasize the light in this scene, offering a close-up of the candles, having the sun shine through the window as Märta prays, lighting Märta’s face after she prays, and then by having Algot make such a big deal about the electric lights. While Tomas’ final words may be uttered in ambiguous fashion, there is doubt that the light continues to surround him.