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The Silence & Presence of God: Moviegoing with Ingmar Bergman

Last year at Hutchmoot, I was perusing Eric Peters’s delightful used bookshop when I stumbled on a work called The Silence of God: Creative Response to the Films of Ingmar Bergman. I had heard of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, but I couldn’t think of a single film of his that I had actually seen.

I often lament that although I love film and work full-time in video production, I never went to film school. I missed out on learning about French New Wave, German Expressionism, and Italian Neorealism. I missed all the classics that everyone in film school has to sit through and summarize in papers. Like a book that you don’t necessarily want to read, but know you would be a better person for having read it, I thought it was about time I dip my toes into the land of Bergman. I definitely didn’t come back out of the water the same.

The Silence of God: Creative Response to the Films of Ingmar Bergman was written by the Canadian theologian Arthur Gibson. This is not a normal “Christian take on a secular artist” kind of book. What makes it different is that it’s obvious that Gibson is obsessed with Bergman. His love for these films is higher than any motive to show Christ in them. Each chapter is about one film; the book covers seven films in all and each chapter builds on the theme of the silence of God and ends with (what the author calls) the penultimate film on that subject: Persona.

I reached out to a few friends who I thought might be interested in doing a film study together. Two showed up consistently (shoutout to Dave Mankin and Hitoshi Yamaguchi). They bought the book and read each chapter as we watched the correlated film. It took about six months total, but we got through all seven films, reading and discussing each as we went. It ended up being one of my favorite things I did this year.

Arthur Gibson himself is fascinating. A researcher at Cambridge University in the Department of Pure Mathematics And Mathematical Statistics, his other titles include God and the Universe, Metaphysics and Transcendence, and Biblical Semantic Logic: A Preliminary Analysis. Reading what he sees in Bergman—what he pulls from the narrative, the imagery, the scenes, and the dialogue—is both difficult and enlightening. And then to actually watch the film exponentially surpasses reading about it. Film is meant to be viewed, after all.

Gibson says in the first chapter of his book:

Bergman certainly did not intend his films to be received entirely passively; the sensitized utterly passive filmstrip is a mere storage and communication device. On either side of it stand human beings, calling to one another as deep to deep. This book is the answer of one such human being, preoccupied with the problem and the phenomenon of modern atheism, to that other human being who exposed on film his own inner vision.

Throughout this series of seven films, Gibson sees the silence of God as a thread woven throughout. He says:

But God is operative and communicative throughout these films. Their theme is truly the silence of God, not merely the silence that proves there is no God there. When finally encountered head-on, this God is dramatically exposed to his own creature who can reject him. Indeed the dynamic of these seven films begins with man and ends with God. . .The radically simplified problematic of the entire series, regarded as a solitary unity, might be stated thus. The initial questioning demands: Is God there? And the terminal answer retorts: No, now he is here!

I know Bergman probably didn’t intend everything Gibson is finding in his films, but it doesn’t matter. Gibson, in his own way, is seeing Bergman through his own fascinating lens of Christianity—and not just any Christianity, but a raw and free Christianity that I rarely glimpse. This is because of who Gibson is and his own unique experience of life and God. As I read Gibson and then watch Bergman, I can take both at face value. I can appreciate and take whatever I want from what Gibson sees in Bergman, and I can also take whatever else I want from watching Bergman myself.

This is one of my favorite things about art: it is like a bottomless well of water, offering a drink to the thirsty, however they would drink it, from whatever cup they choose. You see something good here? Then take it. Drink it. You don’t have to ask permission. It’s yours. Bergman isn’t going to stand up from his grave and shake his fist, “I didn’t intend for you to take that from my film!” No, Bergman is a true artist, and true artists are humble enough to understand that their art is bigger than their own limited intentions.

Gibson even says in his introduction, “Any question of the ‘adequacy’ of this interpretation here offered to the ‘original’ Bergman is patently irrelevant. I am neither trying to wrest Bergman to my own aims and ends nor attempting to offer an exclusive key. Rather this book is offered as a testimony to the thought patterns and above all the picture kaleidoscope activated in me by the experience of these films.”

I found Bergman’s films to be beautiful, thought-provoking, disturbing, spiritual, crude, alive, real. They shook me awake and left me dizzy for days.

(By the way, if you decide to go on a Bergman journey, then please swim at your own risk—his work can be disturbing at times.)

This is one of my favorite things about art: it is like a bottomless well of water, offering a drink to the thirsty, however they would drink it, from whatever cup they choose. Hetty White

Persona (1966) stayed with me the longest and keeps coming back to mind, especially when I’m alone in a quiet, empty house. The story is one of a sweet, perky nurse charged to look after an actress who has completely stopped speaking. The two of them travel to a seaside estate and spend many days there. The nurse (Alma) tries to cheer up the actress (Elizabeth) and chatters on to her even as she continues in her silence. Over time, Alma becomes so agitated that she eventually begs Elizabeth to speak. Elizabeth visits Alma in the night and they have a strange, dream-like encounter in which Elizabeth tells her “You can do with me what you will…I exist only for your sake.” But the next day, Alma barely remembers the encounter.

At the climax of the film, Alma begins losing track of who she is apart from Elizabeth. In a disturbing scene where Alma gives a monologue about Elizabeth’s past, the camera focuses solely on Alma; and then the camera moves to Elizabeth as Alma speaks the exact same monologue for a second time over. The viewer (along with Alma) loses track of who is talking and also loses track of who is Alma and who is Elizabeth. Alma cries out a denouncement of her union with Elizabeth: “I am not you,” she says. The film ends with Alma “on her way back to the town she loves so well and has missed so much during her enforced retreat in the solitary and secluded place, alone with God.”

Gibson sees Persona as the climax of the film series, wrapping up the progression of the silence of God theme.

“The thrust of the film series we have reviewed is the clarification of an initial silence apparently indicative of absence into a terminal silence terribly indicative of presence. . . It is no small achievement to turn the fulcrum of modern atheism through a 180-degree angle, so that what initially seemed a silence indicative of total anterior absence of God from the realm of reality emerges terminally as a silence wrought by man’s deicidal hands throttling that God into definitive quiet.”

If I took one thing away from this whole experience of reading Gibson and watching Bergman, it is that when I sense the silence of God, it is a presence, not an absence; and it’s also an invitation.

Whether or not you read this particular book or watch this film series, I hope this essay provokes you to start your own movie club, dig into some of the films that don’t pop up on your Netflix feed, and watch something that makes you feel a little bit uncomfortable. As the famous film critic Robert Ebert once said: “It won’t be easy but it might just change you.” (The same thing might be said about Eric Peters’s bookshop.)

I think it appropriate to end with a quote from Bergman himself from a 1964 interview with Playboy Magazine. He was asked, “Well, your films have been unfavorably reviewed for, among other reasons, the private meanings and obscurity of many of their episodes and much of their symbolism. Do you think these accusations may have some validity?”

Bergman answered:

Possibly, but I hope not—because I think that making a film comprehensible to the audience is the most important duty of any moviemaker. It’s also the most difficult. Private films are relatively easy to make; but I don’t feel a director should make easy films. He should try to lead his audience a little further in each succeeding film. It’s good for the public to work a little. But the director should never forget who it is he’s making his film for. In any case, it’s not as important that a person who sees one of my films understands it here, in the head, as it is that he understands it here, in the heart. This is what matters.

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