Thursday, June 30, 2011


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.

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.
Life Lessons

I 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.

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 first 90-minutes of Fanny & Alexander is devoted to a family Christmas get-together that is a cinematic marvel and could stand on its own as a separate film. Ostensibly an expositional introduction to all the main characters, everything from Sven Nykvist's breathtaking cinematography to the touchingly realized human interactions (there's an exchange between a sweet-faced little girl and one of the servants regarding the bearing of grief while others are happy that just tears my heart out), it is a sequence of familial warmth unlike anything I've seen. Virtuoso filmmaking.
  Helena: "Are you sad because you've grown old?"
Isak: "I'm certainly not. Everything's getting worse. Worse people, worse machines, worse wars...and worse weather."
I've never understood how Woody Allen, when trying to channel his idol Ingmar Bergman, always managed to come up with such shallow, constipated, and dull copies. Bergman's work, if nothing else, brim over with life and humanity. I understand how he's not everybody's cup of tea, but my experience of his films (especially Wild Strawberries...another favorite) has been that they are more passionate and emotional than cerebral, and a great deal more entertaining than they are given credit for.

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."

These simple sentiments touch my emotional core very keenly. They are the facts of life and compassionate human existence. In Fanny & Alexander Ingmar Bergman expounds upon them in such artfully dramatic and poetic ways that, in my eyes, he has created nothing short of an unqualified masterpiece.

Copyright © Ken Anderson    2009 - 2011


  1. i haven't seen this one yet! in fact, i've never seen bergman's color films. that's what i love so much about the movies - there are no shortages of the magical art. when one is viewed, twenty more are revealed.

  2. PS - 'wild strawberries' is one of my favorites. that and 'sawdust and tinsel'

  3. Hi Kathrynnova
    Hmmm...I've never seen "Stardust & Tinsel". I've put it on my Netflix list. Thanks for the inadvertent recommendation.
    I hope you check out "Fanny & Alexander", even if you don't go as ga-ga for it in toto as I have, there are just so many isolated passages and scenes that shouldn't be missed by anyone who loves movies.

  4. Hi Ken, Thanks for a great post. This is my favourite film as well; we show "Fanny och Alexander" every year around Christmas, with a feast at intermission (this year we did a roast goose), though its spell cannot help but spill over into the rest of the year (often I can't help but insert Gustav Adolf's proud & angry "Jajajajaja..." when I encounter a messy situation).

  5. Hi Andrew, Thank you very much for your comment. I really love that you have integrated this film into your holiday like that! Each year I always think I'm just going to watch the film's Christmas sequence, but I invariably get caught up with the characters and settle down for a long evening's entertainment. Can't resist it. LOL at your Gustav reference...I can so identify.

  6. This is hands down my favorite foreign movie ever. As much as I enjoyed PARASITE, this should have been the first foreign language film to win the best picture Oscar.
    I obviously wouldn't change a thing, but did you know the grandmother role was conceived for Ingrid Bergman (who died in 1982) after her triumph in AUTUMN SONATA, that Emilie was offered and turned down by Liv Ullmann, and the evil bishop was supposed to be played by Max Von Sydow, but his agents insisted on a cut of the profits and were turned down without telling Von Sydow anything about it! They say he was not happy and would have done it for nothing.

    1. I feel the same. It's a masterwork and wholly deserving of a Best Film Oscar win. Being decades apart, nothing about a win for Bergman would have changed anything about PARSITE's much-deserved win save for the folks who like statistics. In fact, had this film broke the foreign-language block surrounding the Best Picture category, perhaps there would be many more deserving film to follow, rather than waiting until the almost embarrassing late-date of 2019 for Oscar to recognize global contributions.

      Thanks for citing and sharing all those factoids about Bergman's ideal cast concepts. Many years after seeing the film I caught a "making of" feature on The Criterion Channel that revealed these details. Taking nothing from the cast assembled, it would have made this film that more nostalgically perfect for me had Ullmann, Bergman, and Van Sydow been possible.

      Glad you've mentioned this for those for the readers who weren't aware and come to this blog reveling in all the extra things they learn about the films I highlight when they read the comments section. Thanks!