When Fanny and Alexander was new, its director Ingmar Bergman announced that it would be his last film. Perhaps the overwhelming international success of this fascinating family portrait changed his mind; the last thing one would wish the maker of a great picture like this one, is to stop working.
No longer tied to the dour, pessimistic vision of his middle years, Bergman infuses his story of a well-to-do theatrical family with dozens of interesting characters. There's plenty of intimate detail, drama and intrigue. Most of it is seen through the imaginative eyes of young Alexander (Bertil Guve), allowing the director to introduce a subtle fantastic element into his tale. Fanny and Alexander veers from warm family gatherings to the dark contrast of an oppressive stepfather's domination. It is also a unique, riveting ghost story.
Criterion presents Bergman's most accessible movie in two versions, the original five-hour Swedish Television show, and the three-hour theatrical cut-down.
The episodic story begins with a joyful Christmas celebration, before major changes overwhelm the Eckdahl household. The spirited grandmother still keeps a tight rein on family business, and is visited by an old admirer, Isaak (Erland Josephson). Her grown sons are amusing eccentrics. Gustav Adolf carries on an open affair with one of the household maids. Uncle Carl has lost faith in his importance and abuses his German wife. But Alexander's father Oscar tells fanciful stories to keep the theatrical world of magic alive for the children.
The main event is a sudden death in the family, followed by the marriage of Alexander's mother Emilie (Ewa Fröling) to the local Bishop (Jan Malmsjö). Only Alexander seems to intuit this man's unyielding Calvinistic menace, and soon Emilie and her children are prisoners in his stone 'palace,' surrounded by frightened servants. The Eckdahl family seems powerless to retrieve them, and the fanatic Bishop is determined to break Alexander's spirit.
What a plot description can't communicate is Fanny and Alexander's magical subtext. At first confined to Alexander's flights of imagination, such as making a statue come to life, the unexplainable events expand into ghost visitations by dead relatives and legendary murder victims. Hamlet's ghost in the Eckdahl's little theater production might serve as the source of inspiration. But later on Alexander comes into contact with Isaak, an elderly Jewish sage who uses tricks of slight-of-hand that are completely unexplainable. That mystery leads to other mysteries, such as Isaak's mad son Ismael (played by a woman, Stina Ekblad) locked away in a secret chamber.
Bergman's story takes a number of frightening turns but never retreats into his older world of hopelessness and isolation. Help comes from unexpected directions. Alexander's unreliable Uncles make a spirited, if laughably uncoordinated attempt to intimidate the wicked Bishop. Alexander and his shy sister Fanny face down their oppressor with the kind of courage and resolve unknown in Bergman's earlier Hour of the Wolf and Shame.
Filmed in rich color, Fanny and Alexander idealizes a childhood in a turn-of-the-century Sweden. The celebratory opening is mirrored by a concluding christening party as warm and human as any in the movies. Grandmother and Emilie are firmly in charge of the family, and all is right with the world.
Criterion has yet another remarkable DVD in Fanny and Alexander; it's fair to say that this leading DVD company is now also one of the centers of film culture. Their presentation of Ingmar Bergman's crowning achievement goes way beyond market requirements. The flawless transfers of both versions sport glowing colors. The discs are organized to navigate swiftly to desired content without waiting for elaborate animated menus to play out, which is a wise and welcome new trend in DVD.
Also included are Bergman's well-known making-of documentary, an hour-long interview with the director, and new interviews with a score of collaborators and actors, including Bertil Guve, Ewa Fröling, Pernilla August, and Erland Josephson. There are also eleven personal film introductions that Bergman prepared in 1984, galleries of theatrical trailers, art and set sketches, stills and essays from Rick Moody, Stig Bjorkman and Paul Arthur. Criterion's disc producer is Johanna Schiller.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fanny and Alexander rates: