Family is a subject that Bergman comes back to again and again. He can get into the most metaphysical of conversations just by having a couple of family members push and pull against each other. Through conflicts between siblings or husband and wife he can show the nature of death and healing, physical love or ethical work. In Fanny and Alexander, Bergman explores all of these things through a couple of years with Ekdahl family. However this is the first time, he decides to show the events of a family through the eyes of the children. With this technique, he injects a sense of whimsy and magic into a film that would normally be put in with his grim pictures. It is fitting that he decided to use children extensively in this film for the first time, because this is the most overtly autobiographical he has ever gotten.
The Ekdahl family starts out as an ideal extended family celebrating Christmas. But behind the surface of idealism, lies a deep sense of sadness and expectation of death. The most beloved brother is in failing health and he seems to know his time is soon. This does not bode well for his young wife and his two children. Finally the event of his death arrives and it seems almost immediately there is a break in that happy family we saw a mere half hour ago celebrating Christmas together. The young wife turns to the priest who presided over her husband’s funeral and marries him. The children and her are transported to a world of strict austerity. The children are always locked in their room, the mother has been forbidden to see her dead husband’s family who were her family essentially and they live according to the strictest of rules put in place by the priest’s mother and sister. Everyone is miserable. It becomes apparent over time that there is no way out. If the mother leaves, the priest threatens to keep the children through the court system. They are stuck in the clutches of this sadistic priest until the Ekdahl family all scheme to get her out of the situation and the family can be whole again.
This story is one of fervent optimism. This is mainly because it is told from the perspective of the child who one assumes is an Ingmar Bergman stand in. The child believes that he and his sister will one day get out of that gray, bare room. To contrast the room where they slept in when their biological father was still alive with the one they were imprisoned in is to see an example of how children can romanticize situations. Because they were happy when their father was still alive, their previous room was full of bright colors, rich fabrics and tons of toys. They also had a handmaid whom they loved and loved them. Their current room at the priest’s house could easily have been a cell at a prison. Dark and gray, they only have a doll house to play with (with no dolls) and a handmaid that tells the priest all of their secrets who then punishes them for it. Although this story is told through the children’s eyes, it still has insights in the dynamics of family life that Bergman has been known for.