In 1982, world renowned Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman decided to make his last feature film as a director (though he still works to this day doing documentaries, writing, producing, and doing television work). That film was Fanny & Alexander, a semi autobiographical opus that, as Bergman states, sums up what he is as a filmmaker.
The Ekdahl's are an affluent family living in a small Swedish town in the early beginnings of the twentieth century. Oscar and Emily, the mother and father of the family, are the two key players in the local town theater (Oscar as a director and Emily as an actress) and because of this, their children, Fanny and Alexander, have always been surrounded by costumes, sets, and theatrics. Oscar's mother and brother are the two chief financial supporters of the arts in the area and it is obvious that the theater is a very important part of the Ekdahl family dynamic.
Unfortunately for Fanny and Alexander, their father passes away far too early. Their mother, understandably deep in mourning, turns to the local minister, Edvard, for comfort and soon falls in love with him. Despite his obvious misunderstanding of the children, Emily soon moves them in with her and remarries the priest, who is a cold and hard man who doesn't understand them or make much of an effort to try to, though at times it does seem like he has the best of intentions for the children at heart. He sees things very much in terms of black and white, and when it comes to the dealings of children things are never quite that simple and he has some very serious problems with this 'cut and dry' outlook on life.
Spread out over five distinct chapters, Fanny & Alexander is a very slow moving film that builds and builds and builds in such a way that while the conclusion may seem slightly obvious, it is nothing but a pleasure to let the film take us there despite its mammoth running time. The story is told quietly and without much of the heavy handed symbolism that he used in some of his earlier films like The Seventh Seal, playing more like a happier (can you use the word 'happy' when describing a Bergman film?) Cries And Whispers in the way that in unfolds and allows the viewer to make up his or her own mind about intricacies of the storyline.
The autobiographical moments in the film serve to make it a very personal vehicle for the director. He was raised in a strict religious home, and his father was a priest (though the priest character in this film not only represents Bergman's father, but also seems to parallel Bergman himself in the way that he treats those around him). The opening scene of Alexander playing with a puppet theater set is a parallel to Bergman's own early beginnings in the performing arts, as he cut his teeth at a young age doing the same thing. The entire reason that Bergman made it into the film industry in the first place is because one of his plays was seen by the right producer in Sweden when it was performed, again tying back many of the themes, settings, and concepts of Fanny & Alexander back to the director's own life and experiences.
When Alexander reconciles things towards the end of the film thanks to an elderly Jewish man who specializes in antiques, there are still some unanswered questions left out there to ponder but the film concludes in a fitting manner. Like many of Bergman's movies it doesn't give you all the answer right up front and is rather demanding in the sense that it makes you think about things rather than just hand them to you.
Regular Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist does an amazing job of capturing all of the drama and emotion that pours out of the film. All of their experience working together comes bubbling up to the top in a big, beautiful looking film that uses a rich collection of colors and set and clever camera positioning to make the powerful story even more dramatic and heart rendering. Even if you walk away from the film having gotten nothing from it (let's face it, Bergman's work is definitely not for all tastes), at least you'll have been treated to some truly sumptuous visuals that will leave your eyes wanting more.
The theatrical version clocks in at one hundred and eighty eight minutes in length, considerably shorter than its televised counterpart which runs for a whopping three hundred and twelve minutes in length. This televised version is the version that Berman wanted to present but couldn't get into theaters. It was broadcast on Swedish television in five installments and it reinserts the approximately two hours of cuts that were required when trimming the film down to what was considered an appropriate length for theatrical exhibition. This release marks the first time that the television version of the film has been released on home video in the United States, and because of that it will probably be the first time a lot of people are able to see the film as the director intended it to be seen.
At five hours in length, the television version feels like a more complete film. As you watch the theatrical cut, you'll notice that certain aspects of the story and certain details within the film almost seem to be missing. Some of the trims are quite obvious and when the storyline unfolds so languidly as it does in this film, it becomes rather apparent when segments are severed. Watching the television version the movie feels far more cohesive and while it takes two additional hours of viewing time to get through it, it is time well spent in that you're seeing the film the way that it should be seen – with all the little nuances and quirks intact. The theatrical version is good, but it isn't as good.
Criterion has given Bergman fans a few different options in the way that they can add Fanny & Alexander to their home video libraries – not only has this five disc set been made available containing both the theatrical version of the film, the Swedish television version of the film and a disc of extra features, but the theatrical version is also available separately which, according to Criterion's website, includes the extra features disc from the boxed set but not the television version.
Both versions of the film are presented in their original aspect ratio of 1.66.1 and are enhanced for anamorphic television sets. These new high definition transfers look absolutely sparkling and aside from some extremely minor print damage and little bit of grain here and there, both versions of the film look gorgeous. Bergman's color films always make great use of different hues to portray warmth and emotion in the sets and buildings and rooms in which the films take place. Fanny & Alexander is no exception to this. Criterion's transfer ensures that every drop of color comes through with clarity, the hues never bleeding into each other (especially important with the reds) and always looking distinct yet retaining a very organic and natural look and feel.
The films original language track (Dolby Digital 1.0 Swedish Mono) is retained for this release with optional English subtitles. The audio is clean and clear without a trace of hiss or distortion evident at all. The subtitles are easy to read and free of typographical errors of any kind. While this mono mix isn't going to give your home theater setup much to do (everything comes out of the front center channel unless you tell it to do otherwise), considering that the audio track is presented in its original version without any remixing and that it sounds as good and as clear and robust as it does, there's really nothing to complain about here.
Extra features for the theatrical version DVDs are limited to a full length commentary track from film scholar and Bergman biographer, Peter Cowie. While at times the discussion does get a little bit dry, Cowie does a good job of examining the film, comparing it to the director's other works and putting things into context in terms of what elements come from what sources. He supplies some background information on the film, details its production, and supplies a wealth of information. The man obviously knows what he's talking about and has a lot of enthusiasm for his subject. While it might prove difficult to get through two versions of the film and then sit through it again with the commentary track on, it is definitely worth sampling as there are a lot of 'little things' that Crowie notes that makes the experience all the better.
Hidden amongst the menus of the Swedish television version of the movie is a brand new documentary entitled A Bergman Tapestry: Fanny & Alexander. Combined mainly of cast and crew interviews, this segment gives us a nice, well rounded look at what went into making the film and how it was to work with Sweden's most famed director.
First up for the supplemental fifth disc is the feature length documentary, The Making Of Fanny & Alexander, which Bergman actually directed himself. This documentary is presented in a Swedish Dolby Digital Mono track with optional English subtitles, and the image is shown in its original 1.33.1 fullframe aspect ratio. This is a very real feeling documentary that captures Bergman working on his epic masterpiece through his own eyes. We witness his interaction with his cast members, and work alongside Nyvqist to get the camera exactly where he wants it how he wants it. It becomes obvious as this one hundred and ten minute documentary unfolds that Bergman knows exactly what he wants from his team and isn't afraid to tell them so. His own experiences as an actor allow him to very tightly define the performances he wants from his chosen cast members and while he may have a reputation for being difficult at times, it's obvious that the reason this may seem apparent is because the man has an unending passion for cinema. We see him working on something as simple as a basic, static shot of a horse standing in a field and we see him working on incredibly complex shots like the opening scene with the puppet theater. This film about a film does an exceptional job of parlaying the movie making experience to the viewer, and it compliments the two versions of the feature perfectly.
There's also an hour long documentary entitled Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell To Film included on this disc as well. This is a conversation between Bergman and Nils Petter Sundgren that was originally made for Swedish television to commemorate the directors achievements, culminating in Fanny & Alexander which at the time he intended to be his swan song.
Some behind the scenes video footage captures the models and sets used in the making of the film, and this footage presented here for the first time gives us an interesting look at how these things appear from different angles and different perspectives. Bergman contributes new introductions to eleven of his films on this disc as well, and Criterion has also included a selection of trailers for the following Bergman films:
Rounding out the extra features on this fifth disc are a stills gallery containing an extensive selection of production photos and artwork, as well as a lofty selection of costume sketches done in pre-production. The set also comes with a gorgeous full color booklet containing essays on Bergman and on the film itself, complimented with some nice stills from the movie.
Fans of Ingmar Bergman's unique cinematic voice already know that they need this set. Those who are on the fence about his work probably won't be swayed by this massive release from Criterion, but for those who don't mind slow paced human drama told with an artisans voice, the wonderful audio and video quality and wealth of supplemental material make Fanny & Alexander easily a highly recommended release. The film isn't for everyone, but those who do appreciate it will absolutely love this set.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.