Sunday, April 1, 2007

Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish?

Psalm 5: 2-3
Hear my words, O Lord;
listen to my sighing.
Hear my cry for help,
my King, my God!

We are in a Swedish manor at the turn of the 20th century. Clocks decorated with gilded cherubs are placed on tables and mantles in rooms decorated in white, black, and scarlet red. They mark the time of the life we have on earth, the time we have to endure suffering. We hear the first words: "It is early Monday morning, and I am in pain." They are spoken by Agnes (Harriet Andersson), one of three sisters. Her sisters have gathered in their family home to keep vigil, for Agnes is dying.

Roger Ebert has called Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1973) a film whose subject is pain. The deep red has a meaning, for red is the color of the membrane of the soul: "red represents for me the interior of the soul. When I was a child, I imagined the soul to be a dragon, a shadow floating in the air like blue smoke - a huge winged creature, half bird, half fish. But inside the dragon, everything was red." What isn't red in this film is the white of purity and resurrection, or the black of death.

Psalm 13: 2
How long, Lord? Will You utterly forget me?
How long will You hide Your face from me?

"It is a monumental tissue of lies."

This family has been internally ripped apart by events that are never mentioned. Instead of love, they bear hate for each other. As a child, Agnes' own mother would never look at her without scolding her, and once when Agnes goes to comfort her mother, she recognizes suffering, ennui, and longing. Besides Agnes, only the maid Anna (Kari Sylwan) has the capacity for love. But Anna too has suffered lost; her daughter died, and an empty crib is placed next to the table where Anna each morning prays a simple prayer to God for her daughter. Anna is the suffering mother who loses one child and will lose another (Agnes) that she has nurtured.

Psalm 7: 15-17
Sinners conceive iniquity;
pregnant with mischief,
they give birth to failure.
They open a hole and dig it deep,
but fall into the pit they have dug.
Their mischief comes back upon themselves;
their violence falls on their own heads.

"It's so strange how we don't reach each other, we only make small talk."

Maria (Liv Ullman) is the sister who is the beautiful hypocrite. She wears the color red - not of life, but of seduction. When she attempts to seduce the doctor (Erland Josephson), he points out every line on her face. Her hypocrisy is in the corner of her eyes. Her lies rest in the curve of her mouth. Her thoughtlessness is in the frown of her forehead. Her sins have been carved into her face; her beauty is only an illusion. The cruelty that is visible in her features matches that of a woman who is horrified at the selfishness of her cuckolded husband when he attempts to kill himself. Falling to the floor, he asks for her help and she refuses. It is no surprise that she cannot sustain herself through the night's vigil for Agnes.

Karin to Maria: "Do you realize I hate you? And how foolish I find your insipid smiles and your idiotic flirtatiousness? I know of what you're made - your empty caresses and false laughter."

Psalm 25: 16-18
Look upon me, have pity on me,
for I am alone and afflicted.
Relieve the troubles of my heart;
bring me out of my distress.
Put an end to my affliction and suffering;
take away all my sins.

"I don't want you to be kind to me."

Karin (Ingrid Thulin) is the sister tied down in self-loathing, rendered mute by her pain. Married to an indifferent man, she is willing to stab and cut at her own body in order to feel. Persons who self-mutilate do so to give physical expression to emotional pain, to see a physical manifestation of their internal aching. But Karin doesn't cut her leg or arm, she wounds the parts of her body that in women is hidden - her life-giving parts. To mutilate herself in this way is to hate life and humanity, to refuse to take part in the human story through her own addition to it. She smears the blood from this deep cut across her mouth, the mouth that contains the breath of life, the betrayer's kiss, the sign of affection towards others. And then she smiles triumphantly at her husband.

When Maria and Karin are able to speak to each other for the first time, they touch and caress each other’s hands and faces. They are like two giddy schoolgirls, learning the art of affection and friendship for the first time. But in the end it is artifice and parody, for they are committed to their own individual loneliness.

Karin: "You touched me, don't you remember that?" Maria: "I don't recall each stupid act."

Psalm 32: 11-14
My life is worn out by sorrow,
my years by sighing.
My strength fails in affliction;
my bones are consumed.
To all my foes I am a thing of scorn,
to my neighbors, a dread sight,
a horror to my friends.
When they see me in the street,
they quickly shy away.
I am forgotten, out of mind like the dead;
I am like a shattered dish.
I hear the whispers of the crowd;
terrors are all around me.

"Can't anyone help me?"

Agnes is the sacrificial lamb. What internal rot is consuming her with pain? Her skin is pale, her eyes are sunken. She sweats and spreads her arms across the white sheets, Christ-like. Her sisters abandon her: they turn away from her cries and leave Anna to hold her in loving and motherly arms, like the Virgin holding Christ. Agnes screams and screams. She convulses and dies.

Bergman gets in his dig at organized religion through the lack of comfort the pastor provides. What formulaic prayers can explain the significance of the suffering Agnes has endured? "He found you worthy of bearing a long and tortuous agony. You submitted to it the certain knowledge that your sins would be forgiven through the death on the Cross of your Lord, Jesus Christ. Plead with him that he may make sense and meaning of our lives." He turns to the sisters and confesses, "Agnes' faith was stronger than mine." For faith involves acceptance of suffering, enduring it without questions of how or why. Pain is in the order of things in this world, and we cannot use a false countenance to hide from it like Maria does, or use it as an excuse for self-pity and withholding of love towards others like Karin does. Instead, we must accept it as Anna does, a woman who can go from offering prayers to her beloved dead child to eating an apple.

Psalm 102: 4-8, 10
For my days vanish like smoke;
my bones burn away as in a furnace.
I am withered, dried up like grass,
too wasted to eat my food.
From my loud groaning
I become just skin and bones.
I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
I lie awake and moan,
like a lone sparrow on the roof.
I eat ashes like bread,
mingle my drink with tears.

In a strange stage between death and the beyond, in Anna's dream, Agnes cries tears again. She calls for her sisters: "Can't you hold my hands and warm me? It's so empty all around me. Stay with me." Karin refuses: "I won't accept involvement with your death. Perhaps if I cared, but I don't care." Maria allows the dead Agnes to embrace her, but then screams and shoves her away: "No, I am alive!" Both Karin and Maria tell Anna not to go near Agnes' corpse, but Anna embraces her on the bed.

Psalm 116: 7-9
Return, my soul, to your rest;
the Lord has been good to you.
For my soul has been freed from death,
my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.
I shall walk before the Lord
in the land of the living.

After Agnes' funeral, the sisters and their husbands prepare to leave the manor. The home will be sold, the items divided, and Anna is out of work. They do allow her to have some memento of Agnes' and Anna chooses Agnes' diary. Anna reads from it and we see the three sisters, dressed in white, walking among trees in autumn. Here, all Agnes' aches and pains are gone. She is talking and laughing with her sisters, the sisters who will abandon her at the hour of her death, for they have no love in their hearts to share with her, no interest in relieving her suffering. And yet she holds no ill will towards them, or towards a God who would have her endure such suffering.

Psalm 139: 5
Behind and before You encircle me
and rest Your hand upon me.

"I felt the presence of their bodies, the warmth of their hands. Come what may, this is for a moment, I can experience perfection. And I feel profoundly grateful for my life, which gives me so much."

Ingmar Bergman (b. 1918) was the son of a Lutheran pastor. Following a strict (to say the least - as a child he was severely punished by his father for minor transgressions ) upbringing that no doubt shaped his attitude towards religion in his mature life, he began his career as a theatre and film director and did make several films with religious themes; The Seventh Seal (1957), The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), and Winter Light (1963) are the most famous of his films with religious subjects. While filming Winter Light he claimed to have realized he had lost his faith in God at the age of 8, and after a series of nervous breakdowns, his next films beginning with Persona (1965), focused on issues of identity and self, alienation and betrayal, where individuals in intimate relationships go at each other with sharpened blades. As one film critic summarized this stage of his career, Bergman had figured out how to turn his own personal anguish into cinematic art. Although he was now an agnostic and once called Protestantism "a wretched kettle of fish," he nevertheless, in what Pauline Kael called "cinema of the inner life," addressed issues of the human condition that are relevant to religion. Painting is Gauguin's Christ in the Garden of Olives (1889)

1 comment:

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

"Instead, we must accept it as Anna does, a woman who can go from offering prayers to her beloved dead child to eating an apple."

Reminds me of a saying about Archimandrite Sophrony:

"There is a word that Fr. Sophrony once gave. He told a fellow monk, who had been at the edge of despair (in his prayers for the sins of the world - you have to read Sophrony to get all this). His word was, 'Stand at the abyss and pray until you can stand no longer - then have a cup of tea.' This seems like a good word."

What an appropriate post to start Holy Week. The use of the Psalms truly shows us what the Psalter is: God praying to Himself so that we will know how to pray to Him. It is not the negation of our humanity and brokeness, but its embracing and transformation, all done in a process of dialogue with God.