Orson Welles' Citizen Kane tops many people's list of near-perfect films, but for me, any such list would have to start where Ingmar Bergman ended; with Fanny & Alexander, the legendary director's remarkably beautiful final film.
In spite of being the most expensive and large-scale film of Ingmar Bergman's career, Fanny & Alexander is nevertheless a profoundly intimate and introspective movie about a well-to-do family in turn-of-the-century Sweden which has about it the dreamy air of semi-autobiographical nostalgia and reverie. Almost impossible not to view as the summation of the director's impressive and influential career, its narrative highlights a great many of Bergman's lifelong preoccupations: fate, the existence of God, ghosts, the endurance of love, the pain of existence - as well as several actors and character names he has used over the years.
|Bertil Guve as Alexander Ekdahl|
|Pernilla Allwin as Fanny Ekdahl|
|Gunn Wallgren as Helena Ekdahl|
|Erland Josephson as Isak Jacobi|
|Allan Edwall as Oscar Ekdahl|
|Ewa Froling as Emelie Ekdahl|
|Jan Malmsjo as Bishop Edvard Vergerus|
|Jarl Kulle as Gustav Adolf Ekdahl|
You don't have to be an art-house aficionado or Bergman-ophile to appreciate Fanny & Alexander, for it is also Bergman's most accessible, warm, and life-embracing film. Full of humor and finely-observed details of familial devotion and discord, it is a film about family that is a welcome departure from the typical idealized depiction of childhood as an idyllic wonderland. Fanny & Alexander throws a trenchant light on the too-often terrifying vulnerability and helplessness that is the lot of the young, while commenting poignantly on youth's greatest gift...children are blessed with an almost superhuman capacity to endure.
Viewed partially through the eyes of 10 year-old Alexander and his 8 year-old sister, Fanny, the beauty of this film is its ability to poetically capture that mystical time in a young life when, in the words of Stephen Sondheim, "Everything was possible and nothing made sense." It celebrates, at its center, that extraordinary aptitude in children to unquestioningly accept the real and the magical with the same level of gravity, accommodating both the tragic and joyous in life with an almost existential grace. In framing its magic realism within the structure of a broadly emotive theatrical family seen from the perspective of a watchful little boy with a vivid, almost psychic, imagination; Fanny & Alexander offers us a glimpse into the formative influences (both sensual and spiritual) on Bergman and his art.
|"There comes my family"|
Helena, matriarch of the Ekdahl family, lovingly observes the arrival of her offspring.
Although the theatrical version of Fanny & Alexander is a masterpiece in and of itself (clocking in at a considerable 188-minutes), my movie-geek prayers were answered when the original, uncut 312-minute version was released in the US several years back by The Criterion Collection (really, is this the only DVD release company that loves movies?). It is absolute HEAVEN! The opening Christmas sequence alone is worth the price.
As some people do with The Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind, I watch Fanny & Alexander once a year, usually around Christmas or New Year's. It's my idea of the perfect adult fairy tale. There's a villain, a haunted castle, a damsel in distress, evil in-laws, a sorcerer, and a magic potion. The literate screenplay (by Bergman) has passages of genuine poetry that are as moving and eloquent as ever captured in a motion picture. No matter how often I see it, it never fails to leave me charmed and teary-eyed.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
One of the great gifts of getting older is that, with the gaining of wisdom (hopefully), comes a peace and ease with the unalterable vicissitudes of life. You no longer need armor yourself with an unearned belief in life's cruelty, nor do you need to sentimentalize your existence with fantasies of everything being rosy. You take the good with the bad and learn to cling to the joyful moments, large and small, grateful for friends and loved ones and those everyday miracles that you are content with never possibly understanding. Fanny & Alexander feels like a work of an artist matured. Gone is the predominantly dark palate of Bergman's earlier works; with this film he is willing to embrace the light along with the shadows.
PERFORMANCESI first fell in love with the faces (such a delight to see wrinkles, sagging skin, imperfections -character!), then the brilliant words, then the affecting performances...all are so rich and in such full flower that I can't isolate any single individual as my favorite. Like Robert Altman's Nashville, Fanny & Alexander is built on the ensemble players, perfectly cast and completely in concert.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Magic realism has long intrigued me when used in film. The matter-of-fact melding of the real and the supernatural seems a perfect stylistic choice for motion pictures, but few films handle it effectively. In Fanny & Alexander the intrusion of magic and the supernatural into the corporeal world suits the film's child's-eye-view perspective, its Grimm's fairy-tale-like narrative, and its philosophical meditations. None of this is new territory for Bergman, but I think this film showcases his most natural, least surreal employment of this stylistic device.
|In one of the film's many poetically moving sequences, Alexander's "guardian angel" grants an unspoken wish.|
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Isak: "I'm certainly not. Everything's getting worse. Worse people, worse machines, worse wars...and worse weather."
Why exactly Fanny & Alexander speaks to me on such a sentimental level can be summed up by quotes from two other films that convey (more eloquently than I could) philosophical ideologies that get me in the gut every time:
From the film Sling Blade- "I don't think anything bad ought to happen to children. I think the bad stuff should be saved up for the people who's grown up. That's the way I see it."
From the film Little Children- "We're all miracles. Know why? Because as humans, every day we go about our business, and all that time we know...we all know...that the things we love, the people we love, at any time now can all be taken away. We live knowing that and we keep going anyway. Animals don't do that."
Copyright © Ken Anderson
Ken Anderson is an LA-based freelance writer and lifelong film enthusiast.
Read more essays on films from the ’60s & ‘70s at Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For.