Since Bergman’s death in July, New York has mounted several touching tributes to the great Swede, including a revival of Monika and screenings of Persona (introduced by none other than Bibi Andersson) and Shame. The IFC Center’s premiere of the five-hour version of Fanny and Alexander (which the director far preferred to the three-hour cut released in theaters) may be the most moving homage yet.
The saga of the Ekdahl family, spanning approximately 1907–1908, famously contains several Bergman biographical elements (a severe patriarch) and a summation of lifelong themes (the struggle to believe in God). What will strike both Bergman acolytes and neophytes most in this almost-farewell to cinema (2003’s Saraband would be his coda) is the incredibly detailed, compassionate view of childhood. Children had rarely figured into Bergman’s oeuvre prior to Fanny and Alexander, functioning primarily, if at all, as portents of the bizarre: One thinks of the sickly, bespectacled boy in Persona and the odd lad who meets the dwarves in The Silence.
This film might be considered the year of magical thinking for ten-year-old Alexander (the amazing, spindly-limbed Guve). Clearly the director’s surrogate, Alexander, the son of actors, is first seen playing with a toy theater, whose motto reads “Not for pleasure alone.” He, along with his younger sister (Allwin), will soon be thrust from the never-ending delights of a warm extended family into the horrors of an unbearably severe second home. Our young protagonist will be obsessed with death and see ghosts everywhere. Never has the prison of childhood seemed so inescapable.