‘Cries and Whispers” envelops us in a tomb of dread, pain and hate, and to counter these powerful feelings it summons selfless love. It is, I think, Ingmar Bergman’s way of treating his own self-disgust, and his envy of those who have faith. His story, which takes place inside a Swedish manor house on the grounds of a large estate, shows us a dying woman named Agnes and those who have come to wait with her: her sisters Maria and Karin, her servant Anna. Three men drift through, two husbands and a doctor, and there is a small role at the end for the pastor, but this is essentially a story of women who are bound together by a painful history.
This is a monstrous family. Maria (Liv Ullmann) is flighty and shallow, cheats on her husband, and refuses to come to his aid when he stabs himself after learning of her infidelity. Karin (Ingrid Thulin) is cold and hostile, hates her husband, cuts herself with a shard of glass in an intimate place and then smiles triumphantly as she smears the blood on her face. In one of the film’s most devastating scenes, Karin tells Maria how much she had always hated her.
Agnes (Harriet Andersson), the dying sister, has been caught in a crucible of pain. Sometimes she screams, wounded animal sounds, and then Anna (Kari Sylwan) comes to her, holds her head to her breasts, and tries to comfort her. Anna is the wholly good person in the movie, who prays to God for the soul of her dead daughter, and moves silently in the background as the family eats at its own soul. She loves Agnes, and would love the others if they could be loved.
Bergman never made another film this painful. To see it is to touch the extremes of human feeling. It is so personal, so penetrating of privacy, we almost want to look away. “Persona” (1966) points to it, especially with its use of closeups to show the mystery of the personality; no other director has done more with the human face. It’s as if “Cries and Whispers,” made in 1972, brought him to the end of his attempts to lance the wound of his suffering; his later films draw back into more realism, more sensible memories of his life and failings (for no director is more consistently autobiographical). And near the end there is “Faithless” (2000), directed by Ullmann from his screenplay, in which an old man summons actors (or ghosts) to help him deal with his regret for having hurt others.