Encapsulating any of Bergman's films is a monumental task. The Swedish director is one of the giants of cinema and an artist of the first order no matter what the medium. His stylistic films are at once deeply symbolic and tantalizingly naturalistic. Bergman was able to see the complexity of human existence and to breathe its rich textures into his films almost effortlessly.
Cries and Whispers is a prime example of Bergman at the height of his artistic prowess. The plot concerns three sisters in the late 19th century. Agnes, the elder sister, is dying from an incurable disease while her younger siblings Karin and Maria along with a maid named Anna attend to her needs. As Agnes dies Bergman dramatizes the internal struggle of each woman touching on the nature of love, life, duplicity, envy, death, pain, forgiveness and a host of other themes. It's a testament to Bergman's mastery that Cries and Whispers is able to achieve all this without feeling rushed, pretentious or overly self-conscious.
The story is told in a nonlinear, dream-like fashion in which colors and sounds have as much impact on the viewer as the images themselves. Every element, every frame of Cries and Whispers is suffused with symbology and deeper meaning. Bergman draws the viewer along at a stately pace but the psychology of the characters, as reflected both in languorous close-ups of the actors and by the expressive sets and props, is at once frantic, thought provoking, touching, measured and relatable. There have been hundreds of critical appraisals of Bergman's work published over the years and I won't presume to add anything to that cacophony of praise. Suffice it to say that Cries and Whispers is a feast for the mind that can't be eaten all in one bite. This is cinema at its purest and most expressive.
Criterion's release is just a little disappointing in terms of picture quality. On one hand the film elements seem to be in excellent shape. The print is stable, clean and free from excessive grain. On the other hand the contrast is troublesome at best. The whites are much too bright and the blacks are so deep as to obscure a great deal of shadow detail. Granted, some of this darkness is a part of Bergman's technique but, having seen this film on the big screen, I can tell you that it was never intended to be this murky looking. Other than the contrast issue the transfer is nicely done. There is no hint of excessive edge sharpening and I couldn't detect any compression related artifacts.
Both English and Swedish language tracks are available on this disc. Both are presented in one channel monaural and the dynamic range is predictably limited. Voices are fairly crisp throughout but the overall volume is inconsistent. I found myself reaching for the remote to turn up the volume in some of the quieter scenes. The English dub is actually very well done and can be watched without taking too much away from the film.
There's only one extra on this disc but it's one that's sure to please serious film students and Bergman fans alike. 'Ingmar Bergman: Reflections on Life, Death and Love with Erland Josephson' is an extensive interview with the director conducted in 1999 and originally broadcast on Swedish TV. In the 53-minute interview Bergman discusses his cinematic technique, his life and his films in great detail and with great candor. It's a revealing look at a complex and fascinating artist.
Cries and Whispers stands as one of Bergman's greatest achievements and one of film's most significant titles. It's a work that can and should be watched repeatedly in order to tease out greater meaning. Even in light of the sub-standard transfer and lack of weighty extras I have to give Cries and Whispers my highest recommendation: DVD Talk Collector's Series.