“Cries and Whispers” - Ingmar Bergman (1972)

Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (Viskningar och rop, 1972) is a unique film in several respects and is unlike other films in Bergman’s oeuvre.  For one thing, the film doesn’t trace out a straightforward, coherent narrative like most filmed dramas.  Instead, it consists of a collection of emotion-tempered recollections and visions on the parts of its four main characters.  On account of this, the film has drawn a range of reactions from various reviewers.  Famed film critic Andrew Sarris hated the film [1].  On the other hand, Roger Ebert was captivated by the film and had this to say about it [2]:
"’Cries and Whispers’ is like no movie I've seen before, and like no movie Ingmar Bergman has made before, although we are all likely to see many films in our lives, there will be few like this one.  It is hypnotic, disturbing, frightening.”
And overall, the film has come to be regarded as a classic [2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9].  Moreover, the  artistic craftsmanship employed in the making of this offering was recognized by the U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences by earning five Oscar nominations, including one for “Best Picture” (not just a nomination for “Best International Feature Film”, i.e. Best Foreign Film).

For my part, as I watched Cries and Whispers, I was initially somewhat skeptical and thought that some of the characters were perhaps too schematically drawn to fuel a gripping drama.  But as the film played on, I became increasingly drawn in to the psychological themes on display.  As critic Emma Wilson remarked [8],
“Its [Cries and Whispers’s] achievement, making it emerge from Bergman’s extraordinary corpus as unique, is in its incandescent touching of love and horror in their fullest extremes.”
Indeed, there are a number of passionate human existential themes interwoven into this tale:
  • Honesty and authenticity
  • Communication
  • Human intimacy 
  • Pain
  • Death
  • Love
But before we look at the coverage of these themes in the film, we need to clear up a matter concerning the English title of the film.  “Cries and Whispers” is an English translation of the Swedish title, “Viskningar och rop”, but the English rendering likely suggests the feelings of whimpering sadness.  However, as Norman Holland has pointed out, the English word ‘cries’ has two meanings – (a) “crying out”, i.e. shouting, and (b) tearful sadness, whereas the Swedish word ‘rop’ connotes only shouting [4].  So a more precise, though less poetic, translation of “Viskningar och rop” would be “Whispers and Shouts”.  This suggests that a key aspect of this film is concerned not so much with sadness, but with contrasting types of spoken communication, which is one of the above-listed themes of the film.  

The events in the film take place in a large manor house in the Swedish countryside near the end of the 19th century, and they concern the thoughts and feelings of the four adult women who are staying there.  (There are men in this film, but they are mostly mechanical ciphers with little feeling.)  Three of these women are sisters – Agnes (played by Harriet Andersson), her older sister Karin (Ingrid Thulin), and Agnes’s younger sister Maria (Liv Ullmann) – and the fourth woman is the housemaid, Anna (Kari Sylwan), who has served at the home for twelve years.  Karin and Maria have come to the mansion to attend to their terminally ill sister, Agnes, who is suffering in the final stages of intestinal cancer.  The film opens showing Agnes in bed and suffering extreme pain, the intensity of which is underlined by a two-minute extreme closeup shot showing Agnes’s agonized face.  In the adjoining room the other three women are shown expressing their concern.  

Then the film begins its sequence of subjective recollections and visions, some of which seem to be fantasies.  These are all encapsulated by fade-ins and fade-outs from and to a deep red color, rather than black, and they feature a closeup of the woman having the vision before fully fading to a deep red hue.  Indeed color is a key feature of this film, particularly red, which Bergman once said represented for him the “interior of the soul” [5].  And of course black and white have also always been key shades for Bergman.  Norman Holland has symbolized these three colors for Bergman as “red for the fruitful, sensuous mother; white for the virgin; black for the death-goddess” [4].  Here in this film we can further identify these colors with the four women: Maria (red), Karin (black), Anna (white), and Agnes (white).

The sequence of subjective recollections and visions provide little narratives concerning how the four women see themselves and the others.  After all, this is only natural – we tend to characterize ourselves and other people in our acquaintance not as lists of facts, but in terms of brief narratives that we have constructed for the purpose [10,11,12].  

To reveal Maria’s nature, there is a revelatory recollection of an occasion when Agnes’s doctor, David (Erland Josephson), pays a brief clinical visit to the mansion and before departing is privately approached by Maria.  We learn that Maria and David had had a past extramarital affair (which had induced her neglected husband Joakim (Henning Moritzen) to attempt suicide) and that now Maria wants to rekindle things.  But David doesn’t want to restart anything with the woman, and he holds her in front of a mirror so she can see his description of how her many years of selfish, good-natured  superficiality has affected her face.  Maria, looking at her image in the mirror, seems to accept David’s painful diagnosis.  

On another occasion, though, Maria is shown approaching her sister Karin and seeking to restore their once affectionate relationship when they were growing up.  Maria wants to again touch and kiss her sister, but Karin is standoffish and reluctant to do that.  However, Karin eventually succumbs to Maria’s approaches, and they embrace affectionately.  On a later occasion, though, Karin wants to resume the affectionate gestures with her sister, but Maria is shocked and has forgotten all about the earlier encounter.  This reveals that, essentially, Maria is a mostly genial, outward-going, touchy-feely person, but she lives mostly in the present and generally doesn’t retain long-held feelings.

Karin, on the other hand, is a lonely and thoughtful, inner-directed person who harbors long-held resentments.  There is a recollective vision which shows her having dinner with her husband, Fredrik (Georg Årlin), who is cold and self-centered.  Afterwards, she takes a piece of broken glass and uses it to painfully mutilate her genitalia so that she can deny her husband from having sex with her.

Anna, the maid, is a simple person but full of warmth and compassion.  She is religious and prays to God regularly, and she doesn’t question what she considers God’s unfathomable wisdom for having years ago taken the life of her young daughter.  After Agnes’s death, Anna recalls or imagines a period when Agnes briefly came back to life and called out for solace from her deathbed.  Karin and Maria were disturbed at the sight of such an apparition and withdrew in horror, but Anna went to Agnes and instinctively enfolded her in her bosom the way a mother would do to comfort her suffering child.

We don’t get much about Agnes’s inner personal vision until the end of the film.  Maria’s and Karin’s  husbands come to the manor home to shut things down, and they cold-heartedly dismiss Anna without any severance.  So Anna must clear out her things, and in the process of tidying things up, she comes across Agnes’s diary.  Anna reads an entry in the diary, which is dramatically visualized, in which Agnes describes an earlier time when she was feeling better, and an occasion when she, Karin, Maria, and Anna frolicked together in a park.  In particular, Agnes highlighted a shared moment of oneness when they engaged in swinging on a swing.  This was such a special moment for Agnes, and she said [4],
“The people I am most fond of in all the world were with me. I could hear their chatting around me. I could feel the presence of their bodies, the warmth of their hands.  I wanted to hold the moment fast and thought,
‘Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection. And I feel profoundly grateful to my life, which gives me so much.’”
So the film ends giving one the feeling that though her life was painful and tragically shortened, Agnes was perhaps the one who lived life most authentically and thereby to the fullest.  She had the ability to recognize and hold onto all the beautiful moments she experienced in life.  This is the scene that brings things together and makes the film a coherent whole.  But this is only one of the film’s moving expressions of engagement (or would-be engagement).

In fact there are several scenes in Cries and Whispers that critics have singled out as being uniquely brilliant, even for Ingmar Bergman.  Emma Wilson, writing for The Criterion Collection, treasured two other scenes – one of Anna enfolding Agnes in her bosom and another of Agnes returning to life, to the horror of her sisters [8]:
“These two scenes are unequaled in any film, I think, in their finding of a form, an image, to hold unspeakable emotions.“
Roger Ebert had his own take on favorite scenes [2]:
"These two scenes – of Anna, embracing Agnes, and of Karin and Maria touching like frightened kittens – are two of the greatest Bergman has ever created.”
When you see the film, you may have your own favorites.  Together, all these moments of visionary emotive expression in Cries and Whispers add up to a moving cinematic experience.

  1. Andrew Sarris, “films in focus”, The Village Voice, (28 December 1972).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “Cries and Whispers”, RogerEbert.com, (12 February 1973).   
  3. Vincent Canby, “Bergman's New ‘Cries and Whispers’”, The New York Times, (22  December 1972).   
  4. Norman N. Holland, “Ingmar Bergman, Cries and Whispers, Viskningar och rop, 1984.”, A Sharper Focus, (1984).   
  5. Peter Cowie, “Cries and Whispers”, The Criterion Collection, (18 June 2001).   
  6. Roger Ebert, “Cries and Whispers”, Great Movies, RogerEbert.com, (18 August 2002).   
  7. Marco Lanzagorta, “Cries and Whispers”, Senses of Cinema. (March 2003).   
  8. Emma Wilson, “Cries and Whispers: Love and Death”, The Criterion Collection, (1 April 2015).
  9. Margarita Landazuri, "Cries and Whispers”, Turner Classic Movies, (23 February 2016).  
  10. Roger Schank and Gary Saul Morrison, Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence (Rethinking Theory), Northwestern, (1990).  
  11. Jerome Bruner, “The Narrative Construction of Reality”, in Narrative Intelligence (2003), Michael Mateas and Phoebe Sengers (eds.), John Benjamin Publishing Co.
  12. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vols. I- III, (1983-1985), University of Chicago Press.