Legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman has long created thought-provoking films that explore life and death issues. As he has withdrawn to his private Fårö residence in the latter part of his career, Bergman has demonstrated profound understanding of women. His 1972 Cries and Whispers (Viskningar och rop) does both—exploring the souls of four women as the film probes existential musings concerning life, death, and love.
Departing from his black and white photography, Bergman maintains strict control of the colors, symbolically bathing the film in various shades of blood red (feeling that red is the color of the soul). The reds are everywhere—rugs, curtains, bedspreads, ceilings, glasses of wine, and dissolves that transition from one soul-wrenching scene to the next. Contrasting with the reds are the white gowns and dresses of the four women who are central to the plot.
The pure and chaste Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is dying of cancer and her two sisters Maria (Liv Ullman) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin) have come to the manor to help ease Agnes' inevitable passage to the next world. It turns out that Agnes is the only one of the three sisters who is capable of showing love. Maria quietly schemes and flirts with men, even capturing the affections of Agnes' doctor (Erland Josephsan), and the melancholy, suicidal Karin festers bitterly in a loveless marriage. Although Agnes cries out for the love of her sisters, only the maidservant Anna (Kari Sylwan) comforts her dying mistress during the final agonizing moments.
Indeed, one of the film's highlights features a scene with Anna baring her breast so that Agnes can rest with the comfort of flesh to flesh affection, something that her cold and heartless sisters are incapable of giving. Staying with this theme after Agnes' passing, Bergman reveals the characters of the two sisters in another scene where Maria expresses her utter contempt and hatred towards the silent Karin before breaking down and begging forgiveness. Karin has never been comfortable with physical touching, so when the two sisters begin touching each other's faces during the "make up" scene, it's like they are exploring and discovering each other for the first time.
But if you think that this will mark hopeful growth in the relationship of the two remaining sisters, recall that this is an Ingmar Bergman film—their destiny is pessimistically filled with regrets and remorse. The sisters will be no better off after the funeral than they were before, and their brief interlude of actual soul to soul communication (shown in an intimate scene in which we cannot hear the whispered exchange) will remain a fleeting memory, not to be continued. They are only thankful that the funeral wasn’t too morbid, as they move on closer to their own final dreary, impersonal destinations.
Many people are afraid to tread into Bergman waters because they fear that his surrealistic images will challenge their intellects and the symbolism will go right over their heads—they've seen clips of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. Any fears of pretentiousness should be ignored--Cries and Whispers is one of Bergman's most approachable films. The blood red symbolism for the soul is so blatant that it's easy to figure out, and it's not all that necessary to figure out symbolic meanings for Bergman's ubiquitous clocks to appreciate the film. This film deals more with emotional aspects than it does with intellectual meanderings, and in a sense serves as primal scream therapy for a dysfunctional family searching for love and meaning in their lives.
Thus, Cries and Whispers is not completely highbrow. If you want proof, look no further than the fact that the Academy actually nominated this film among the regular Best Picture candidates in 1973. Perhaps that was partly due to the fact that the Academy realizes that it's supposed to like Bergman films even when they don't understand them, but it's more likely that the Academy members could actually understand the emotional content (they are much like mainstream America when it comes to film viewing). That doesn't mean that Cries and Whispers is Bergman's best work—see Persona, The Virgin Spring, Wild Strawberries, or The Seventh Seal for those candidates.
No one watches a Bergman film for pure entertainment or to see some great action footage. Not a lot happens in Cries and Whispers, and few lines of dialogue will stick with you—perhaps Agnes' pleas for someone to help her, at most. Bergman's lengthy closeups on Andersson's tearful face create a great deal of empathetic anguish. Those are the cries. Also included are some bloody graphic scenes with the masochistic Karin that may well have inspired William Friedkin to include a vaginal stabbing in The Exorcist (a film that also explores some of the same philosophical areas). Is it any accident that Friedkin chooses frequent Bergman acting icon Max von Sydow for that film?
Even though you won’t remember significant dialogue, you are certain to retain those agonizing visuals that communicate the agony of a tortured soul. Between Bergman’s tightly controlled artistry, realized by the visual talents of cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Cries and Whispers quietly leaves its existential mark. Those whispers will haunt for a long time after viewing, for aren't we all searching for love, acceptance, and meaning in our lives.
*Note: The Criterion DVD release contains a rare interview with Ingmar Bergman. He sits down alongside longtime friend/actor/director Erland Josephsan and discusses his work and philosophy about love, life, and death in a fascinating 52-minute take.