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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Through a glass darkly

Existential questions have always intrigued me. The answers are often unanimously dogmatic, with people belonging to different wavelengths of the colourful spectrum of opinions trying to vociferously voice his/her own opinion as the eternal truth. The enigmatic nature of the questions sometimes makes the answers seem equally probable, though it might not be the case in reality. But what is this reality we are trying to define here? Isn’t reality another name given to a product that’s a powerful edifice chiselled by the human mind? The problem with trying to answer existential questions is that, the answers are likely to be dictated by your subconscious. Your thoughts and actions are guided by your beliefs, rationalism plummets to the backseat and your emotions reign supreme. Equivocation becomes the debater’s best friend in times of intellectual oblivion, obfuscation the obvious strategy of the argumentative disputant trying to establish himself as the unquestionable oracle. 

The ones that try to tread on the neutral path, plainly trying to examine the mysterious unknowns with the curiosity of an innocent child asking his dad what exists beyond the sky and the stars are often belittled. You’re likely to be accused of being a chicken not big enough to form an opinion. But these opinionated myopic eyes that disparage you of being indecisive don’t realize the fact that such a cold-eyed stance could actually help you stay at the centre of the spectrum thus enabling you to gape at the titanic beauty of nature which encompasses these talking heads.

A dispassionate stance, one that appreciates the exquisiteness of the phrase “I don’t know” with all the humility in the universe can actually lead to a comprehensive analysis that subtly tries to take the best out of every extremist stance. The study of a mind with such a stance or the study of a work of a person with such an attitude can be extremely fascinating. One such mind is Ingmar Bergman and one such work is “Through the glass darkly” , which tries to investigate diverse perspectives from a birds-eye viewpoint, coincidentally and ironically playing god in the process, though playing or reaching a conclusion about god maybe the last thing on such a person’s mind.

Whether Bergman was an atheist is a debatable question but the pointers seem to be too evident especially in the latter part of his life. There is no explicit confession in his autobiography too, but you’re tempted into conclusion, like in most situations, including the god question. Bergman could have died an atheist but my instincts tell me that Bergman hadn’t formed an opinion when he made this film. He was born into a religious family, his dad being a pastor. He probably started questioning faith during his formative years and “Through the glass darkly” was probably a product that resulted when his mind was witnessing a tumultuous war between his theistic persona that could be attributed to his upbringing and an iconoclastic, inquisitive side that wasn’t willing to ignore the logical loopholes in his beliefs anymore. The convolutions have resulted in one of the best films I have seen, probably the best you are likely to see.

I’d like to share a few interesting things about the movie here. The only female character in this movie, Karin, is shown to be a mentally ill person. She has supernatural visions and is shown to be living in her own sweet world and she seems to enjoy that. Her problem begins the moment the line that separates her perceived world and the real one starts blurring. This probably represents the state of mind of Bergman in his earlier years when he started questioning religious faith. He wouldn’t have had problems being a closet theist but the disastrous nature of the “disease” would have started troubling him the moment his intellect started questioning the veracity of the holy angels close to his heart. Rational questioning and introspection can be assumed to be a disease only by a fanatically raised theist told to be embroiled in his faith, come what may. His atheistic side or the rationalist side should I say, takes over satirically as he takes a dig at revelations and supernatural envisioning by allegorically classifying them as a mental delusion that keeps the victim away from material reality. On the other hand, it was hard to ignore the fact that the other characters in the movie would have appeared to be mentally ill from Karin’s point of view. This is evident from the way she disregards her own husband at the expense of a god that might (MIGHT) make an entrance through a big door in that perceived reality of hers. Bergman probably tries to imply here that the extravagant possibilities and the positives that could arise out of the existence of such an omnipotent god actually drive people into frenzied faith and hope that they exhibit; so much so that they disregard the immaculate material advantages that their faculties could appreciate, like a caring, freethinking and handsome husband in this case.

Another thing that struck me about the characterization of Karin is the degree of sexual exuberance and tension on exhibition, scene after scene, something that’s brave and anachronistic considering the fact that the film was made in the black and white era. The way she goes about happily kissing and embracing her brother with evidently palpable lust, the manner in which she uses subtle occasions to trigger conversations about her brother’s sexual fantasies give us brief glimpses of the free spirit that Karin could be without the societal limitations. The allegories happen to be the dad and her husband for the patriarchal stranglehold the society (she moves about without restrains and converses without inhibitions when her dad and husband are gone) has over women and the supernatural visions for the influence of religion over the freedom of women. The portrayal of incest again appeared to be subtle here. The director must have had all the audacity in the world to choose incest as an abstract representation to convey something. For a promiscuous viewer, it might appear to be blatant proselytism of incest but the brother here probably just represents a non-chauvinistic male community ready to give women their due with respect to sexual freedom.

The movie has a universal theme that is likely to be relevant perpetually. The music (J.S. Bach?) is haunting and extremely appropriate. The film is basically a drama caught in camera but then an intricate study of the camera is likely to reveal something else. The movie as such is extremely talky and the director chooses to go for long shots when he could have gone for close-ups everytime just to give us a taste of the setting and the abstract expressionism on display. The outdoor shots in the movie are exquisite. We often get to see the splendid, calm sea through a window as the characters engage themselves in a serious conversation inside a room. It seemed to be subtle mockery of the behaviour of the human race that is always seriously involved in its own problems, failing to appreciate the beauty to the big, gigantic embodiment of gorgeousness around it.

The dad’s character in the movie makes a good case study again. He’s shown to be in possession of a vacuous emotional drive with the anomalous expressive bursts happening occasionally.       He finds out at one point that life is possibly pointless and even contemplates suicide. He miraculously escapes death and the twist in the tale enamours faith and hope in him again. He develops new found love towards his children and becomes relatively selfless. He drops a tear at the family reunion, the allegorical play that his children stage strikes a chord. He garners the guts to confess his errors and makes an honest attempt to complete his transformation process. The theist in Bergman takes over here as he even makes an explicit statement before the curtains are drawn: “Love is the evidence of god”. The son, Minus, asks a few questions that put his dad in a soup but the dad reassures him that there is hope as long as there is love. The boy appears confused, but is convinced: not because his dad was cogent but because his dad had finally spoken. His dad, his idol, his hero probably, whose ways were unknown to him, his symbol of hope and his personal god that he was ready to trust.