Sunday, December 30, 2012

Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman)


Christopher Moore, a contemporary author of fantasy fiction, has once said that "children see magic because they look for it". This, for me, is the foundation and the root of all questions raised in "Fanny and Alexander", a complexly-themed masterpiece that is, sadly, also Ingmar Bergman's very last feature film. In hindsight, it may look as if "Fanny and Alexander" is merely about children's innocence and the power of imagination; two themes that are otherwise quite alien to Bergman himself. But seeing the film unfold in its three glorious hours, "Fanny and Alexander" came out to be so much more than that. In many ways, the film is also a complex extension of Bergman's provocative meditation on the non-intervening nature of God (see "Silence of God" trilogy) and his passive role in human existence. Personally, watching "Fanny and Alexander" is like finally putting the last pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in place. 
But Ingmar Bergman, ever the abstract filmmaker, is indeed not the kind that will bail you out with some clear-cut answers. For the record, "Fanny and Alexander" is littered with magic and the supernatural; two aspects of the film that can be taken either as truly literal or completely symbolic. Nonetheless, the film, on surface level a period family drama, wonderfully takes on a new texture and thematic dimension by utilizing some elements that defy physics or explanation. In addition, the film even flirts with the idea that magic may perhaps be the one and only substitute for the complete absence of God; an absurdist approach on Bergman's part but is also very compelling in how it slightly satirizes the extent of our adherence to the unexplainable. 
With no real story or narrative, "Fanny and Alexander's" first half is all about the everyday trivialities in the life of the Ekdahls, a well-to-do family of stage actors which, after a relatively happy Christmas eve, was struck by an unexpected tragedy, which suddenly finds Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and her older brother Alexander (Bertil Guve) emotionally astray and fatherless. 
By way of Sven Nykvist's dreamy cinematography which has won him a well-deserved Oscar, the film was able to subtly depict both the difficulty of losing a father in the formative years of one's life and the silently mercurial nature of familial existence at the time (early 20th century Sweden) through its use of empty spaces, distant shots and anguished faces. 
After the burial of the titular characters' father, a bishop named Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjö) then enters the scene. Extremely authoritative and ruthless, the bishop is Fanny and Alexander's, both of which were raised in a tender and carefree environment, worst nightmare realized. But just when they thought that things won't get any worse after the death of their father, Fanny and Alexander then find themselves under the wing of the bishop himself, who has decided to marry their newly-widowed mother (Ewa Fröling). 
From this point on, after much foreboding early on (with those moving statues and the apparitions of Alexander's father), the film slowly but surely abandons the first half's relatively realistic and lively portrayal of the Ekdahls in favor of a more metaphysical, abstract and gloomy second part. From the approach to the characterizations, it's quite easy to see the definite influence of "Fanny and Alexander" in all those stepmother/stepfather films that it has since predated, specifically Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth", what with its stepfather subplot and whole 'magical realm' aspect. 
But then, "Fanny and Alexander" is never a film that can easily be defined by classifications. It is, in fact, a challenge to our own grasp of cinematic reality. If an emotionally-focused drama like "Fanny and Alexander" suddenly goes all supernatural (which it did), what then can be our potential response as viewers? Well, it's much preferred to just keep mum and simply relish it; after all, this may just be magical realism's finest moment in cinema.  
But aside from being a stunning amalgamation of both fantasy and reality, "Fanny and Alexander" is also a conscious allegory about the importance of cinema in relation to our lives ("Outside is the big world, and sometimes the little world succeeds in reflecting the big one so that we understand it better") and is also a film that challenges our perception of the unknown, of the things we can't define and of certain life phenomena that we can't explain and articulate about. But more importantly, "Fanny and Alexander" beautifully pushes the limits of cinema unlike anything I've ever seen before.
As what the Ekdahls' matriarch (played by Gunn Wållgren) has said at the end of the film, "Everything can happen. Everything is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist. On a flimsy framework of reality, the imagination spins, weaving new patterns." From where I look at it, this is the subtle justification of the film's surprisingly magical nature; a justification that is quite directed to us, the viewers, who are neither children nor naïve and who never expected or anticipated magic but stumbles upon it anyway because of this film. How sad that Ingmar Bergman's great swan song has come too early. But nonetheless, we should still be thankful that a film like "Fanny and Alexander" has come at all. Now I'm more than eager to watch the five-hour version.


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