"The religious problem is an intellectual one to me: the relationship of my mind to my intuition," Ingmar Bergman once said. This director is known for remaining true to his own vision and never getting caught up in cinematic fads. He moves cautiously in the world of his craft and walks the razor's edge between mind and intuition. In his early films, the realm of ideas and metaphysical analysis was meticulously explored: God, communication, loneliness.

In his later works, Bergman has ranged freely in the realm of intuition: areas that we know but cannot speak about directly. With a fluidity unique to his talent, Bergman has dealt with love — the kind where another person is known and cherished through unconscious, intuitive sympathy. Cries and Whispers continues the Swedish filmmaker's explorations of this theme. Bergman has said of it: "What it most resembles is a dark, flowing stream — faces, movements, voices, gestures, exclamations, light and shade, moods, dreams."

The time is the turn of the century. Two women have returned to the family mansion to be present at their sister's death. Agnes (Harriet Andersson) has cancer of the womb. She's nearly 40 years old and has never known the love of a man. Both of her sisters are well-off and married: Karin (Ingrid Thulin), who "hides an impatient hatred of her husband and a permanent rage against her life," and Maria (Liv Ullmann), who's beautiful, self-centered, and "like a spoiled child." Agnes is cared for by Anna (Kari Sylwan), a loving and devoted maid.

The four women float in and out of consciousness during the deathwatch. Many scenes end with red-outs. Bergman explains: "The whole thing is something internal and . . . ever since my childhood I have pictured the inside of the soul as a moist membrane in shades of red." Through the sensitive and mellifluous camerawork of Sven Nykvist, the director choreographs the women's differing responses, memories, and hopes as they face a chorus of clocks that tick the present away and trace a path toward death.

The sisters all desire a closeness, a communal sense of caring — especially in light of the tragic circumstance that threatens to separate them forever. One of them dreams of a funeral service; the presiding minister prays to Agnes: "Pray for us who are left here on the dark, dirty earth under an empty and cruel Heaven. Lay your burden of suffering at God's feet and ask Him to pardon us." We know what Bergman is getting at here: loving through intuition or dream or touch is the closest we can come to meaning in life.

Maria reaches out to Karin who is wrapped in a veil of despair and guilt (she was once capable of mutilating her genitals as a way of expressing her hatred for a chilly husband). Maria's casual eroticism has led her into the fields of adultery. However, she doesn't fear touch and, in a dream sequence, the two sisters caress each other, care for each other, communicate in a ballet of gestures with hand and heart and lips. Agnes is only consoled in her dying by the physical presence of the motherly Anna who gives solace and grace with the warmth of her body.

But once Agnes has died, the sisters return to their icy social etiquette. The last scene in the film is intuitive filmmaking at its best. We see and viscerally experience a passage from Agnes's diary. A paradisiacal summer day. The four women are walking together outdoors. They stop at a swing. Agnes writes about the scene: "All my aches and pains were gone. The people I'm most fond of in the world were with me. I could hear them chatting around me, I felt the presence of their bodies, the warmth of their hands." At this moment, she experiences a few minutes of "perfection."

The image is so sensitively rendered in austere visual terms and so precious in contrast to the sadness that precedes it (the omnipresent cries and whispers of loneliness, pain, grief, and noncommunication in the valley of the shadow of death) that one cannot help but be moved to a deep feeling of catharsis. Call it a dream within Bergmann's dreams. Call it an illusion. Or call it a few minutes of love that makes a lifetime worth living. It is an unforgettable scene.

Andersson, Thulin, Ullmann, and Sylwan perform with consummate ensemble brilliance. Nykvist's camerawork has never been better. Cries and Whispers was the most emotionally affecting film of 1972 and ought to be experienced by everyone who cherishes the tissue of hope that links life and love.