Through a Glass Darkly concerns a psychologically fragile woman, Karin (Harriet Andersson), who seeks recovery from a nervous breakdown while on a remote-island vacation with her family. Unfortunately, her father (Gunnar Björnstrand), a successful writer, regards her with clinical detachment, her husband (Max Von Sydow), a doctor, feels unavailing in the effort to treat her, and her brother (Lars Passgard) is wrapped up in his own quest for sexual fulfillment. Karin's descent into further loneliness and delusion exacerbates the heretofore unspoken alienation at the heart of this entire family, and drives the characters to brood over the existence of God (or, in Karin's case, imagine that God is the chilling spider hidden behind an attic door). Through a Glass Darkly is a heartbreaking, powerful work of art.
Winter Light reunites Björnstrand, this time playing a pastor suffering a crisis of faith while ministering to a shrinking congregation, and Von Sydow as a parishioner lost to acute anxiety over the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. Neither man can help or heal the other, or even inspire renewed confidence in practiced rituals and older, more certain views of the world. Set on a chilly, Sunday afternoon, Winter Light's heavy stillness, lack of music, preference for intense close-ups and distancing long shots, and barren setting all lead us inescapably into the core of a profound silence, an echo chamber in which love can't grow and religion rings hollow.
The Silence is the most abstract entry in the trilogy, a somewhat eerie story of two sisters, Esther (Ingrid Thulin) and Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), and the latter's son (Jörgen Lindström), all traveling by train to Sweden but forced to stay in a foreign country when Esther's chronic bronchial problems require her to rest. A stifling atmosphere, a desolate hotel, encounters with a troupe of carnival dwarves, Anna's anchoring illness, and an empty sexual encounter for Esther underscore the unnerving feeling that God has abandoned these characters to dubious salvation in their own connection. A highly memorable film. --Tom Keogh
But the trilogy seems to represent a transition for Bergman from problems of theology to those immediate problems people experience. This is the reason for the necessity of cinematic intimacy--to be close to these people's problems, one must first be close to the people represented.
I have attempted, here, to avoid obscurities. The interpretation of such details has gone on apace, as with all Bergman's films. But these obscurities are often not too dificult to understand, as Bergman often uses the same themes of religion and despair in all his films. The point is that these three brilliant films represent a complete change in structure and technique for Bergman--he even began, here, to use more radical cinematic methods (an example is the revolutionary six minute close up on Ingrid Thulin's character in the misnomered _Winter Light_). The importance of these films from an historical standpoint is their evidence of a paradigm shift for Bergman, as discussed above. That, and their thematic genius.