A 5-hour-plus drama of epic proportions intended as its director’s swan song, Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 Fanny and Alexander focus on sadness, frustration and bitterness, but above all, the dichotomy between art and religion, all understood through the perspective of two children.
Never since The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Flemming) has a film changed its tonality so drastically, so dramatically as Fanny and Alexander. A canvas painted with colourful strokes of reds and oranges and greens and blues suddenly loses its joie de vivre and become almost monochrome with melancholy greys and discoloured pastels. What is initially noise and joy and dreams transforms itself into discipline and austerity and severity.
In 1907, in the town of Uppsala, Sweden, the Ekdahls prepare to celebrate Christmas. At the grandiose mansion where the family lives, Alexander (Bertil Guve) observes the preparations as his grandmother Helena (Gunn Wållgren) orders the house maids around. Soon, her married children start arriving with their families. They are: theatre actors Oscar (Allan Edwall) and Emelie (Ewa Fröling), parents of Alexander and Fanny (Pernilla Allwin); Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle) – who has an affair with housemaid Maj (Pernilla August) – and his wife Alma (Mona Malm); and Carl (Börje Ahlstedt) and his German wife Lydia (Christina Schollin). The celebrations in this very open and liberal household are joyous: they dance; they sing; they eat.
Things change for Fanny and Alexander when their father dies of a stroke and their mother Emelie marries disciplinarian bishop Edvard Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö). The house that they now live is austere, focused on religion, instead of art. As the bishop gets harsher with the children and their punishment gets more severe, their mother with the help of the family friend Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson) take them away from their stepfather’s grip. One night Emelie drugs the bishop in order to escape and go and see her children. Some time later, a sick relative knocks down a lamp, starting a fire, and then the burning woman falls on the bishop, who dies of scarring injuries. The film ends – as it started – with a celebration (the christening of two babies).
..An Enormous Baroque Mansion as his Personal Play Thing…
Strictly speaking, the change in tone within Fanny and Alexander [Fanny och Alexander] isn’t as dramatic as the one perceived by Dorothy after the tornado. However, it is relevant to notice that both stories are seen by the eyes of children, and as such, bound to reflect mood in a kind of purer way. I’m quite certain that as in the wonderful 1930s classic movie, there are two distinct worlds represented in this Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece. And perhaps, there’s a greater metaphor that confronts religion with the creative force of art, even if we have to acknowledge that these two great human endeavours share some aspects of their nature.
Speaking about life in the theatre, Oscar (Alexander’s father) says: ‘Outside is the big world and sometimes the little world reflects the big world for a moment so that we understand it better. Or is it, perhaps, that we give the people who come here the chance of forgetting for a while, for a few short moments… for a few moments… the harsh world outside?’ Right at the beginning the metaphors concerning art and religion are established. As religion stands for a concept that tries to understand the big world better, art serves the function of distracting us from the harsh realities of life – religion as doctrine; art as entertainment.
The parallel is rich not only because it counterpoints these two concepts against each other, but also because their meanings seem malleable in their explanations of the world. As art and religion can be understood as opposites, they can also be seen as interchangeable. For it is true that there’s within art’s purpose (through its metaphors) a preoccupation with understanding reality around us, as much as religion can serve the function of distracting us from the harsh reality. Religion can be a refuge too. However, one certainty – suggested by the film – remains: Art is mainly interested in beauty and truth, and religion concerns itself with dogma and discipline.
I’m not here to put religion against the wall – although some might say (and I would agree) that it deserves to be put against the wall – but simply to point out the dichotomy played out by these two opposing doctrines. When a maid talks to the children about the bishop’s former wife and how his daughters froze to death and were found by the bridge in the river, Alexander says that he had seen the ghosts of the children. Later the maid tells the bishop, who punishes Alexander by spanking him with a cane. When justifying his behaviour to Emelie, the bishop says ‘He will think twice about fabricating new lies… or fantasies, if you prefer the term.’ But will he? How can he? As he grew up within a caring family that acts for a living, how can Alexander think twice before fabricating new lies?
Religion is the manifestation of fear of the future, of thinks that might happen if a certain course of action is not taken at the present. Art, instead, embraces not only the future, but also the unknown. It represents the opposite of fear, i.e. courage. That is the courage Alexander shows when refusing to ask for forgiveness, superimposed by the ignoble sounds of the cane against the flesh, as the bishop punishes him. For religion seems to care more for what is right and ends up forgetting about what is good.
Ultimately Fanny and Alexander is about the power of fantasies, their influence on reality and their stimulus for change, which, not surprisingly, fit the definition for both art and religion.