Friday, August 2, 2013

On "Fanny and Alexander", Roles, Faith, and Truth

Some thoughts on Fanny and Alexander (with one moderate spoiler in the first paragraph) after the jump:

At one key point in Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, Emilie Ekdahl discusses her dissatisfaction with living a life of roles. It's an life she has come to see as inauthentic: a series of constantly changing parts, none of which is based in any sort of unchanging truth. This has never bothered her before, probably because those roles have been mostly happy ones. But now she grieves, both for her late husband and what she views as a life somewhat wasted playing all those different characters. Her search for truth and authenticity has drawn her to Edvard, a bishop, who she eventually takes as her second husband. Faith doesn't seem to have ever been a huge part of her life (the same can be said for all the Ekdahls, I think), but Edvard's own religious convictions appeal to her. Here is someone who believes in something, and lives his life according to those unchanging beliefs. 

Bergman was of course an atheist, and many of his films are critical of religion. However, I have found that what he criticizes is often—though not always—not so much belief in God in and of itself but two other things frequently related to it: religious oppression and the ease with which one can become blinded by one's faith to the miracle that is existence itself. Both are exemplified in the character of Edvard, and Fanny and Alexander is a film angry about the former and sad about the latter. The Bishop is an antagonist (and an evil man), in that he seeks to impose his will on others, through means both physically and psychologically abusive. We hate him, and he deserves our hate. But he's also a tragic figure that we're meant to pity as well as despise. In devoting his life so completely to his faith—and the strict code of behavior that comes with it—he's lost sight of the joy of living. The house he dwells in is devoid of color: a striking contrast to the rich reds, greens, and other vibrant tones that characterize most of the other environments of the film. It's an empty life: exactly what Emilie feared her own was.

This casts Emilie's notion of roles in a whole new light. Fulfillment, the film seems to be saying, comes not from a rigid, unchanging,  and severe lifestyle given in service to God, but rather from the world and people around us. And yes, we play many different parts in that world throughout our lives. But far from being inauthentic, those parts are in fact what make us who we are. They are life itself, and that's something to be celebrated. Indeed, Bergman seems at various points to have created Fanny and Alexander as a celebration of those who in fact create roles for a living: actors (as Emilie was before marrying Edvard), directors, writers, and other artists (and of course children, whose fantasies make them perhaps the most prolific and imaginative creators around).

To Bergman, there's no more noble calling. Their roles serve a valuable purpose in making us see our own in a new light, or sometimes they simply provide a welcome bit of entertainment. At times, the film seems a meditation on cinema itself, with the theatre merely a stand-in (required by the time period, as film was in its infancy at the time) for filmmaking and acting. And by calling attention to the fact that art is the creation of roles, it makes clear that our lives—in which we too create characters, based on a given situation—are art as well.

But what of meaning? What do these roles mean, when we'll be gone from this Earth soon enough? Isn't there room for the pursuit of some eternal truth (which many choose to call God)? Fanny and Alexander's answer to this question is a resounding maybe. I would say that faith is certainly not incompatible with its worldview, so long as it's not the type of faith practiced by Edvard, his mother, and his sister. If the role of believer is one you wish to play, then go for it. Bergman's point, however, is that the only truth we can be sure of is what's here in front of us: our family, our friends, our art, and (yes) our possessions. We often praise those who shun the pleasures of the material world in search of some higher calling, but maybe we have it backwards. Maybe the material world is the highest calling available to us, and we should bask in its glow. Enjoy life. Eat, drink, take part in conversation, make art, and just be. And above all, don't go looking too hard for truth beyond what's in front of you, or you may miss that which is right before your eyes.

Those, I think, are words to live by, and I dare say no movie has captured the reasons behind my own agnosticism as perfectly as Fanny and Alexander. It speaks to those who—religious or not—believe in the power of people to create, to love, and to make their lives meaningful, regardless of whether there is anything else out there or not. What a beautiful idea. What a film.


  1. Which version was this? Threatrical or miniseries cut?

    1. Will you ever watch the theatrical cut?

    2. Never say never. But not planning on it any time soon. Longer version is pretty much perfect (something that can't often be said of films of this length), and it's Bergman's preferred cut of the film.

  2. The theatrical cut is the only one available in my local library so it looks like that'll be the one I watch unless I want to shill out the $40 to get the Criterion edition.

    PS, I was about to start Freaks & Geeks, but now I'm curious about Orange is the New Black. Should I skip Freaks and go to Orange or should I still watch Freaks first?

    1. If I were you, I'd probably just pay for a month of the 1 DVD at a time plan from Netflix and get the DVDs that way. Because the full version is just extraordinary. Can't imagine the shorter version measuring up.

      Regarding those two shows, I'd recommend going with "Freaks and Geeks". I have two reasons. First, it's better. Though "Orange" is tremendous, "Freaks and Geeks" might be just my favorite show of all time. Secondly, the sooner you finish "Orange", the longer you'll have to wait for season two. So why not watch another show first and avoid having to wait quite as long?

      Anyway, that's my suggestion. Can't go wrong with either one, though.

    2. That sounds like a good plan, but how many discs are there? The wait could kill me.

      Regarding waiting for season 2 of Orange, that was my original plan anyway. I was planning on doing Twin Peaks, Freaks & Geeks, Scandal then Orange, so looks like I get to keep that plan. Yay.

      PS, because I think we talked about it earlier but I'm probably wrong, this season of The Killing has been tremendous. It more than makes up for the first 2 seasons and lives up to the potential of the pilot. Granted tomorrow's finale could ruin all the goodwill it's been building, but I'm rooting for it to succeed. So, check it out when its on Netflix, maybe?

    3. Two discs.

      I may very well check out the third season of "The Killing" at some point. Been hearing lots of good things recently. Right now, though, I'm just looking forward to "Breaking Bad" starting next week. Cannot wait.

    4. Regarding Breaking Bad (which you cannot believe how excited I am for it) I'm going to email you something soon that I'd like you to look over. It's something that I need a second opinion on. Don't worry it's nothing bad.