Sometimes words aren’t necessary to convey meaning or emotion. Quiet is as effective as any spoken language or detailed text. Master filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s “The Silence (Tystnaden)” which shocked the audience at the time of its release goes way ahead of its time and proves just that.
Writing about the plot isn’t going to serve any purpose here. There isn’t a conventional “plot” to speak of. “The Silence” mostly explores the three principal characters and their emotional chemistry. Right from the first frame, in a train compartment we are introduced to sisters Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) and Ester (Ingrid Thulin). They are accompanied by Anna’s son Johan (Jörgen Lindström), a boy of about 10. Instantly we gain knowledge that something isn’t right between the sisters. We also know that Ester seems to be seriously ill with some kind of terminal illness, and Anna perhaps considers her a burden.
They halt at some huge but sparsely occupied hotel in “Timoka”. The country also seems to be on the brink of war. The language spoken there is unknown to the sisters and the locals themselves hardly communicate and if they do, in some incomprehensible language. The rest of the film follows the three characters as they spend their time in this hotel, their interactions with the locals despite the unfamiliarity with the language at the same time, partially revealing some hidden truths about their desires, feelings, and some baffling ambiguities in their mutual relationships…..
Ingmar Bergman does an astounding job of conveying a plethora of emotions through powerful images capable of creating a tremendous impact on the viewer. As mentioned earlier, the dialog is sparse, perhaps a couple of conversations between the sisters and Johan. What fills this canvas is the eerie and unsettling mood, the outstanding sound effects, including a particularly haunting “clock ticking” sound that appears periodically. Add to that Sven Nykvist’s flawless cinematography, with the bleak images, the ghostly shadows and partially lit halls of a near empty hotel, sometimes giving it a feel of a horror film. And then there are the characters and their interactions. Their spoken words are very few, but their expressions speak volumes about the kind of feeling they harbor about one another. Ingrid Thulin’s Ester very convincingly puts it across that she resents Anna going out and having a jolly time, including indulging in sexual encounters while she has to be confined to the indoors. But what is the real cause behind her resentment? Is she jealous of Anna’s voluptuous good looks or is she attracted to them?! And what about Johan? What kind of feelings does he really have for his mother and aunt?
A lot is said but still plenty is left unsaid. This is where the beauty of Bergman’s narration lies. And he couldn’t have handled it better. It is like partially opening the curtains of a window so you can just see part of the scenery that lies on the other side. The other half is left to imagination and interpretation. It is a frustrating as well as rewarding experience all at the same time.
Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom go all out with their bravura performances. Thulin is a clear winner here as she gives a nuanced performance of an ailing writer who seeks refuge in alcohol self-medication. Her subtle display of controlled rage of being at the receiving end of nothing but spite from her younger sister along with a couple other acts of alarming intensity, all amount to one of the finest female performances I’ve ever seen. Lindblom looks gorgeous with her bewitching good looks. But she isn’t far behind with her acting either. Check out Anna’s display of searing animosity for her more intelligent elder sister. Or await that hysterical outburst towards the end. It is a breathtaking performance worth a standing ovation. The boy Jorgen Lindstrom does a superb job too, as the innocent little tyke, neglected by his mother, who keeps wandering around the empty hotel. His scenes with the Spanish performing dwarfs and the kindly old porter at the hotel are especially noteworthy.
|The signature shot of 'overlapping faces', made more famous by Bergman's "Persona" later.|
With the shocking imagery and some brief but daring scenes of lurid eroticism (for the time), this could very well be Bergman’s boldest film. There was considerable controversy regarding the film’s content in Sweden and other countries at the time, leading to some heavy censorship.
“Tystnaden (The Silence)” is an intensely devastating and mesmerizing character study from the Swedish master and deserves to be ranked amongst his finest; the controversies surrounding the film notwithstanding.