For over 40 years, Ingmar Bergman has been playing the blue guitar of his imagination. On occasion, the tunes have been beyond us; most of the time, they have compelled us to listen to the complicated melodies within our confused lives. Bergman's treatments of love, religion, sex, family, marriage, and art have set before us almost every aspect of our existence. They are magic mirrors of things both seen and unseen.
Fanny and Alexander, according to the filmmaker, marks the end of his career as a director of theatrical motion pictures. It is one of the best movies of 1983. In this tale about two youngsters growing up in a Swedish university town at the turn of the century, Bergman re-explores old territory with heightened powers. The cinematography by Sven Nykvist is exquisite as usual another stirring testament to the voluptuousness of looking.
In a season when trivial entertainments of all types will fill summer movie screens, Fanny and Alexander is a green film that is, in the words of its creator, "a declaration of love for life." In addition, Bergman has noted: "It is not so much a chronicle as a Gobelin tapestry from which you can pick the images and the incidents and the characters that fascinate you."
Helena (Gunn Wallgren) is the matriarch of the wealthy Ekdahl clan. A widow, she lives alone in splendiferous winter and summer homes. Her oldest son Oscar (Allan Edwall) manages the local theatre and acts along with his wife Emilie (Ewa Froling). They have two children, Alexander (Bertil Guve), a sensitive, shy 10-year-old dreamer, and Fanny (Pernilla Allwin), his pretty and sensible younger sister. The other two Ekdahl sons are Carl (Borje Ahlstedt), a science professor who is married to a German woman (Christina Schollin), and Gustav (Jarl Kulle), a restaurant owner whose family includes his wife Alma (Mona Malm) and two daughters.
Following a Christmas pageant at the theatre, the Ekdahl family converges on Helena's home for a grand holiday celebration. There is eating, singing, and the opening of presents. Alexander treats the other children to a magic lantern theatrical he creates out of his imagination using some old slides. Meanwhile in the next room, Gustav is bedding Maj, the nursery maid. Helena spends the early morning hours with her friend and former lover Isak Jocobi (Erland Josephson), a Jewish antique dealer and moneylender.
After the Christmas Eve celebrations, Carl is overcome with a fit of depression. He wonders: "How is it one becomes second rate?" During a rehearsal for Hamlet in which he playing the role of the Ghost, Oscar is felled by a heart attack. At the funeral, Bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo) consoles Emilie. In the months that follow, she leans on him for support. He is a sober, highly principled man with a stern, puritanical faith. During his first encounter with Alexander, he reprimands the boy for creating a false story about himself in school.
Despite the Ekdahl family's disapproval, Emilie marries the bishop and moves to his 15th-century palace where he lives in austerity with his mother, sister, and deathly ill aunt. Emilie and the children are forced to leave behind all their possessions. They soon learn that "punctuality, cleanliness, and order are the rule" in this environment. Alexander's hatred for his stepfather burns deep inside. He tells his sister and a kitchen maid of meeting the ghosts of the bishop's former wife and two daughters who drowned in a river outside the palace while trying to escape his tyranny. Alexander is whipped and humiliated by the minister.
Pregnant with another child, Emilie is helpless to free herself and her unhappy offspring from the palace. Uncle Isak comes up with a plan involving an antique chest; the effort succeeds. Alexander and Fanny are given shelter in his store. There the troubled young boy encounters his father's ghost and through Isak's psychic nephew Ismael (Stina Ekblad) works some black magic on the bishop.
Emilie and her two children return to the Ekdahl estate, and her new baby is born. Maj also has a baby girl. Following the double christening, Gustav states: "We are all together again now. The shadows of death have been routed, winter has been put to flight, and joy has returned to our hearts." He admonishes the guest to "take pleasure in the little world." The party continues after his speech.
Emilie is happy to take over as manager of the theatre. She suggests that Helena look at a drama by Strindberg titled The Dream Play. While Alexander hides from his demons in her lap, she reads:
"Anything can happen, anything is
possible and likely.
Time and space do not exist.
On a flimsy ground of reality
Imagination spins out and weaves new patterns."