Let’s take a look at things.
Through a Glass Darkly is one of Ingmar Bergman’s most well-known films, which in itself is enough to make it watchable. However, I have been wanting to return to Bergman’s work for some time and figured this to be the best place to start.
We follow a troubled family as they grapple with Karin’s (Harriet Andersson) mental illness. Her husband Martin (Max von Sydow) confides in Karin’s father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand) that her illness is likely incurable. Karin’s brother Minus (Lars Passgard) deals with sexual frustration and anger towards his father.
The family is clearly on the edge of collapse shortly after the film begins. We open with a scene of them swimming together, but as they reach shore the discussion of who will complete what chores is presented in a stilted, awkward, and uncomfortable way. Appearances seem to matter, so everyone is willing to play along that everything is okay while ignoring the numerous elephants in the room.
The fragile shell of the family structure continues to slowly chip until we enter a freefall of doubt, guilt, fear, madness, and perhaps a sort of redemption (for some). Karin’s illness, which seems to be a form of schizophrenia, is portrayed gently and ethically. While some of the actions of the characters push this film into broader discussions of morality, the primary focus is how we exploit and infantilize the sick. Karin represents a child, sex object, shame, pride, love, and many other things to the three men (sometimes more than one at the same time).
Gender dynamics cut through the story, particularly with the troubled relationship between Minus and Karin. Guilt, shame, and social limitations likewise add to the tapestry Bergman weaves here.
While the story is fascinating, the acting and directing are simply beautiful. Despite a small cast and a limited setting, nearly each shot holds a photographic quality. The artistic nature of the film proves this to be one of Bergman’s technical masterpieces. Numerous perfect shots create an enclosed yet oddly limitless landscape in which we view these people. Everyone involved in this film helps to make it a masterpiece.
Academics, critics, and audiences have loved this film for decades (though it took some time to gain popular traction in the United States). There is good reason for this. The film forces you to confront ideas and issues that aren’t comfortable to consider. Mixed with the beauty of the scenes, we end up with a bleak (but sometimes hopeful) dream like film that will stay with you long after the credits roll.
Many people put this one in the top 100 films ever made, and it deserves this position. For a film that comes out in 1961 it asks questions in a blunter and more critical way than many films dare to even now.
A fantastic film that is still worth viewing today.