Director: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin, Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan
In his opening of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote that "all happy families are the same; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." It might be added that every member of an unhappy family is unhappy in his or her own way. Cries and Whispers, a celebrated film from noted humorist Ingmar Bergman, is about the unhappy members of an unhappy family forced to contend with mortality. Like many of his films it explores themes of faith and the female psyche and, let me tell you, it is a laugh riot.
Cries and Whispers is set in the 19th century at the old family home of three sisters. Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is dying, her two sisters Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann) and their maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan), taking shifts carring for her. Agnes' final days are agonizing, leaving her sisters little chance to escape the grim realities of death. Anna, who has already dealt with the death of her daughter, is able to cope better and offer Agnes some comfort in her final hours, for which she is rewarded at the end of the film when Karin's husband essentially declares, "Screw her, she's not our problem anymore" as the family decides to sell the mansion and let her go.
The film is structed to include flashbacks which reveal the tensions bubbling under the surface of each of the sisters. Agnes remembers her distant relationship with her mother, whom she feels favoured Maria (in flashbacks the mother is also played by Ullmann), though she does recall a brief moment of tenderness. Maria remembers her seduction of the family doctor (Erland Josephson) and her husband's (Henning Moritzen) reaction to her infidelity. Karin's memories also involve her troubled marriage and an incident in which she cuts herself and then smears the blood over her face in triumph as a means of striking out at her husband. The sisters are bound together by pain but also isolated from each other. Maria and Karin can do nothing to ease Agnes' pain and, more often than not, shrink away from her suffering. When Maria reaches out to Karin and asks if they can finally find a way to be friends, Karin tells her that she's always hated her. Later, however, she attempts to make amends only to have Maria rebuff her with chilly casualness.
The four actresses are all excellent, each bringing something different to the film. Ullmann's Maria is fragile and flighty, a character who consists largely of surface without depth (which isn't to say that Ullmann's performance is without depth); Thulin's Karin is broken and angry, a woman seething with hate and yet, in the end, also longing to reach out; Andersson's Agnes is the "best" of the sisters, though it would be difficult not to feel sympathy for someone dying so painfully. It's worth noting, though, that Andersson does not engage in scenery chewing but rather creates a painfully honest depiction of someone in their final hours. It's Sylwan's Anna, though, who ends up seeming the most tragic character, a woman of pure goodness who is just no match for the corrupted personalities around her.
Cries and Whispers is made up of some of the most painful and intense scenes Bergman ever filmed. Some of it is very hard to watch, but Bergman's firm control of the subject matter keeps it from descending into melodrama. The film ended up being nominated for 5 Academy Awards (including Best Picture, a rarity for non-English films), winning for Best Cinematography, and is considered by some to be Bergman's very best film. It's easy to see why.