The silence of God has never been more strident than in Cries and Whispers, Ingmar Bergman’s 1972 masterpiece. In fact it is so loud that it keeps the inhabitants of an old manor awake all the time. They are four women; Agnes (Harriet Andersson) who is dying of womb cancer, her sisters Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin) who have come to be by her side while awaiting her death, and the house servant Anna (Kari Sylwan). They roam the long hallways of the house, where it always seems to be night, filled with unrest, despair and inner demons. Through flashbacks (or are they dreams?) we learn a few things about the women.
Maria is married to a cuckold (Henning Moritzen) and cheated on him with the town doctor (Erland Josephson). Karin despises her husband (Georg Årlin) so much that she commits acts of sexual self mutilation just to hurt him. We also learn that Anna lost her little daughter and prays for her every morning, and that as a child Agnes feared and loved her mother above anything else.
These vignettes aren’t meant to push the plot forward, but to create emotional portraits of what shaped these women and brought them to where they are. Three of them, Maria, Anna and Karin’s, mark turning points of sort within the film. They begin and finish with close ups of each of the women’s half lit faces, followed by red dissolves. The fact that they are linked by cinematic bookends and an oneiric ambiguity consequently leads us to wonder, why wasn’t Agnes’ segment structured like the others’?
The fact might be that she is unlike them, because she’s practically on the doorstep of death. “It is early Monday morning and I am in pain” she writes on her journal. With the nature of her memories being about sunny days, childhood parties and being with her sisters, it’s as if Bergman has taken pity on her and has decided to liberate her from the emotional pain the others battle with. But in doing so, we also begin to wonder what was the nature of Agnes’ life before her illness. Was she also plagued by the infinite misery her sisters share, or might she have in a way been a saint?
Along the film, Bergman deals with themes that fascinated him throughout his career and here he focuses particularly on the ongoing dialogue between life and death under the light of spirituality. Agnes’ suffering almost achieves martyrdom and when she finally dies (in a scene that recalls the crucifixion) the priest (Anders Ek) in charge of her funeral gives an elegy where she is often compared to Jesus Christ. “In your life, he found you worthy of bearing a long, torturous agony” he says filled with contradictory despair as the others listen to what becomes an affirmation of doubt in his own beliefs. “Pray for us who have been left behind in this miserable Earth” he finishes. But even if the idea of Christianity usually leads us to think about Jesus, the fact is that almost every symbol in Cries and Whispers represents some of the female figures of Christianity. For example we’re led to believe that Agnes died a virgin not only because none of her memories feature a man in a sexual role; but also because she shares a name with Saint Agnes of Rome. She was a virgin-martyr who became patron of chastity and virgins after a horrifying death. If Bergman named her like that accidentally then we also can draw information from the nature of her disease - The womb which is both sacred and sinful in Christianity takes us back to the original sin. Agnes’ sexual organs are probably more in tune with the representation of the Virgin Mary, while her sisters, whose troubles seem to originate from lust are metaphors for humanity after the downfall of man in the Garden of Eden.
Added to this we also have Anna (Saint Anna was the Virgin Mary’s mother) who here represents the ultimate mother figure. She is the only one who takes care of Agnes, even when she’s at her worst, providing her with everlasting tenderness and warmth. One of the film’s most iconic scenes has Agnes resting over Anna’s lap in what immediately strikes us as Bergman’s own version of La Pietà. Agnes and Anna are in a way the ones closest to God and the idea that Bergman believes so much in their faith, in spite of his own doubts, gives the movie its axis and dilemma. How, he asks, can they believe in someone or something that has given them so much pain?
Anna loses both her daughters in a way, and by the end still remains the most dignified character in the film and the one filled with the most faith. Maria and Karin on the other side delight in their own hedonistic, somewhat profane views of the world. After her lover asks her if she doesn’t need absolution Maria carelessly answers “I have no need of being pardoned” and in another scene the arrogant Karin states “nothing can escape me, for I see it all”.
Bergman probably saw himself more in tune with these thoughts of omnipotence and self worth. But the other part, the one that constantly whispered inside his head to believe in something bigger than himself doesn’t get a minute of rest. And after battling with himself on what to make of these characters and whether to attribute more importance to faith or knowledge, Bergman takes the wisest choice. He gives up on finding the answer. He lets go. And for a moment finds that life, even with all of its struggles is nothing short of perfect.