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Cries and Whispers: Criterion Collection
Of the world cinema masters who came to prominence in the mid-20th Century, Ingmar Bergman has to be the most daunting one with which to engage. He's a great dramatist, and the performances in his films are always outstanding, but his filmography is awfully short on laugh riots. Sure, he's made some films that are lighter than others, but the majority of the "important" ones sure seem to be big bummers.
Case in point: the newly-reissued Cries and Whispers from 1972, which deals with a woman dying of cancer in the early 1900's, as she is attended by her two sisters and a housemaid. Just by that brief description, it should be clear that this is not the kind of thing that you put on when you just want to wind down or blow off some steam. You aren't going to just put this movie on in the background and do stuff around the house. This movie requires your concentration and it might take something from you.
Harriet Andersson plays Agnes, the dying woman, who is first seen waking up to a bout of excruciating pain. She stretches and contorts in quiet agony, possibly trying not to disturb the others in the house. Like much of the film, Bergman films this moment in close-up on Agnes's face, making the audience confront the character's trials without distance, but also leaving the actress with no leeway for falseness in her performance. A significant portion of the film involves wordless close-ups like this, leaving the actors to read the emotions of the actors and try to extract meaning from there.
Fortunately, Bergman is working with a group of remarkably expressive faces. Liv Ullman is Maria, the seemingly vivacious and flirtatious sister who is actually quite cold at her core. Ingrid Thulin is Karin, the outwardly reserved sister who has put up walls to protect her intensely sensitive soul. Maria and Karin try to comfort their sister who is not going gentle into that good night, but instead is frequently wracked with spasms of agony. Their own internal conflicts keep them from opening up and providing the proper succor to Agnes. Meanwhile, the housemaid Anna (Kari Sylwan) has forged an intense involvement with Agnes. Anna recently lost a daughter, and it's obvious that Agnes has become a kind of surrogate.
Cries and Whispers is plotted very simply, with flashbacks giving way to present-day catharsis (and anti-catharsis), but Bergman rarely lets the intensity of emotion and existential dread within his small cast of characters wane. In Bergman's vision, even death does not seem to bring comfort to the dying. There's a shocking clarity and hypnotic power to this kind of filmmaking, which begs to be witnessed and appreciated. However, the film's oppressive solemnity makes it the kind of experience one is unlikely to want to repeat soon after. Before this, I last saw Cries and Whispers nearly fifteen years ago. I now feel like I'm probably set for the next fifteen years.
Cries and Whispers comes packaged with a full-color fold-out booklet, including an essay by scholar Emma Wilson.
Criterion offers up a beautiful AVC-encoded 1080p 1.66:1 transfer that boasts optimal clarity and film grain structure. Fine detail, shadow detail: both excellent. Most impressive though is the way that this presentation allows the intensely red decor to pop off the screen without overwhelming the black and white accents or adversely affecting the look of the actors' skin tones. Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist had to do many tests to get this right on film, and this transfer does a great job of maintaining that look here.
Most of the audio in Cries and Whispers is quite subtle, with Bergman playing with dynamics of sound, as in a piece of music. The Swedish LPCM mono audio track (with optional English subtitles) does a great job of giving us a sense of the spaces in which these scenes are set, even when nothing is said and without modern surround effects. The dialogue is consistently clear and intensely present. Music is used very sparingly. The lossy English Dolby mono dub is a little less subtle with the atmosphere -- everything seems a little more cranked-up as to be completely audible -- but makes an OK alternative if you aren't into reading.
(HD upconverted from SD, 7:08) - A 2003 interview with Bergman where he talks about how he came to write the script. His speech is very slow and steady, much like the performances in this film, which helps explain why this "intro" is so long.
Cries and Whispers is a powerful piece of work, with incredibly intense performances and a hypnotic visual approach, that makes it a must-see. It's dark and heavy, though, so don't rush in unprepared. Criterion's new remastered presentation looks and sounds outstanding, and the expanded bonus features offer plenty of worthwhile additional viewing. Highly Recommended.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and frequent wearer of beards. His new single, Don\\\'t Depend on Me, is now available to stream or download on Bandcamp, Spotify, Amazon, Apple, and wherever else fine music is enjoyed.