THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 61: FANNY AND ALEXANDER

by Daniel Suddes


Fanny and Alexander (1982) – Director: Ingmar Bergman  Original Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman   Starring Pernillia Allwin, Bertil Guve  Oscar Count (4) – Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Foreign Language Film.

In his penultimate film, Ingmar Bergman uses his youngest characters in order to examine his broadest themes. Most of Bergman’s films have a fantastical element, with characters facing the literal embodiment of death and eternity. Fanny and Alexander is a different work because it is the most human of all of  Bergman’s film.

The film is an autobiographical look at Bergman’s childhood, in which the titular children and their mother move in with an ultraconservative bishop, after the sudden death of the childrens’ father. The man is psychologically cruel, and tries to prevent the children from enjoying their lives. They are kept as virtual prisoners in a dilapidated home, while the bishop attempts to break their wills. Yes, it comes across as a fairy tale, with Alexander acting as a sort of male Cinderella. But, more importantly, it was a chance for Bergman to finally reflect on his own muse. Bergman grew up in the sort of environment that Alexander does, in which he was punished for wetting the bed by being locked in a closet. He was surrounded by religious icons and punishment, and constantly told that these were all that was good in the world. His only retreat, which he discovered at a young age, was art. But surely, those childhood questions nagged him until his death. After all, how could something considered to be the savior of mankind lead people to act so bizarrely?

Bergman has attempted to find an answer with all of his films. Yet he is the most frank about his search in this film. By the end, I am not sure if Fanny and especially Alexander (who is pretty much the Bergmann stand in – Fanny is not introduced for almost an hour into the film’s running time in the theatrical version) have found the answers they seek. In fact, the ending is somewhat negative, as Alexander must deal with the fact that he will also have the negative experiences in his past following him. But then, that is what makes us human – how we come to terms with such experiences.

To match the seemingly limitless expanses of Alexander’s imagination, the Ekdahl estate was designed to almost be a living organism. Rooms open on to other rooms, hallways seem to go on forever, rooms grow and shrink at random. It matches the state of Alexander’s mind – frightened, confused, but also hopeful. He believes that the world around him is open. Naturally, the environment he creates (yes, I do think that most of what happens in the film happens only in Alexander’s mind – he is an unreliable narrator) must reflect that. Bergman has used the mise en scene exactly as it should be used – to externalize what the characters are thinking and feeling. The estate may be the greatest character in the film.

There are many great moments in the film. One involves Alexander thinking he is speaking with God. Some involve the elaborate Christmas celebrations at the beginning. The opening scene of the television version (in which Alexander walks through the house, calling out the names of his family members) comes highly recommended. But my favorite scene in the film does not feature any of the usual fantastical elements, any ghosts, or even the shots of the house. It is the speech right at the beginning of this clip, in which the theater director Oscar Ekdahl explains his muse. The tight close up, the teary face, and the words of escapism and love, culminate in the single best monologue in a Bergman film. As with the rest of Fanny and Alexander, it is Bergman being as honest as he possibly can be with his audience. His films are, ultimately, just films. They may not be able to help Bergman find his answers. But they can at least help him escape from his troubling past.

Ingmar Bergman is among the finest directors ever in the history of the medium. His observations on life, death, and God have influenced countless other artists who are at a metaphysical crossroads. Fanny and Alexander is among his best films. It is certainly the most human and probably his most visually appealing.  Yet the film also may be the most accessible to the general public. Everyone, as a child, ponders the enormous questions that Alexander ponders in the film. It is very rare that anyone receives the answers they seek. This frustration, and quest, is visible inFanny and Alexander more than any other film.

Did You Know?: Two versions of the film exist. The first, released in theaters, is about three hours long. The other is about five hours long and originally played as a miniseries on Swedish television.


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