Bergman’s films can be difficult to decipher. While watching the Silence, I was wondering why Bergman chose to show us this relationship. When he had so many ideas welling up inside of him why focus on such a boring group of people? As the film went on, it began to dawn on me. He was boring me on purpose. Bergman uses silence, mundane situations and small conversations to lull you into an apathetic state of mind. It isn’t until he lulled you there, does he hit you with emotions that you had no idea were really there the whole time. Thus is the appeal of Bergman.
Let me back up a little bit here. The Silence involves three people. Two sisters and the child of one of them. They are traveling somewhere but the audience is unsure as to where it is. They seem to only be traveling there in order for them to stay in a hotel room. One sister is dying. She is desperate for human interaction but cannot venture outside of their room. The other sister is still young and desperate to get out of the clutches of her sister. She complains constantly that it is too hot in their room. She finally goes out and finds a guy who she can have sexual relations with. Her son weaves between these two women with an ease of a ballerina. He knows exactly what he wants to say at a given time in order to make one of the women feel better. It seems that he has been in this position between these two women for quite some time. The tension between the two women increase throughout the whole film. It comes to a head when one night, the younger sister decides to have sex with the guy she picked up in a room very close to theirs. The boy tells the older sister and she goes to confront her harlot sister. They get into an altercation. This altercation pushes the sick woman over the edge and she is unable to move from her bed anymore. Her descent is almost unbearable to watch. She rambles about her sister and her dead father in between bouts of her suffocating. The two women have one more interaction and the younger sister takes her son away from the dying woman. Maybe they will never see her again.
These two women seem to be two halves of a whole. One woman is fascinated with the mind. She translates as a living, the son draws her pictures to look at and study, and she is constantly wanting to talk about her feelings. The other woman is more physical. She is always taking off her clothes even if it is just to bathe. She perfumes herself and finds herself in the physical throes of a man with hardly any effort exerted on her part. In a normal woman, these two sides battle like they do here. Some women have achieved harmony and see themselves as both intellectual and sexual. But most women are at least seen in the eyes of others as one or the other. To take an obvious example, Hilary Clinton has always been seen as an intellectual person. But she is hardly ever put up as a sexual being. Her sexuality is never a quality that is looked at. In contrast Barack Obama was seen as both a sexual being (many women I knew around 2008 voted for him solely because they thought he was sexy) and an intellectual figure (although this can be debated sometimes). These two dynamics were even more apparent in the time that Bergman made this film. This was before the Sexual Revolution and before the Second Wave of Feminism came into prominence around the world. Bergman was working with a very real problem in most women’s lives. Should you pursue your intellectual goals and risk never finding love or do you eschew all intellectual prospects and be known primarily for your beauty?
But the film is more about the two sides of a woman. It is also about family. When you are thrust into the company of a person that you loathe but can’t get away from, it is most likely because you two are family. The healthy woman feels a need to help her sister through this difficult time, but she is also just ready for her to die already. This is a common feeling among healthy people and their dying or sick family members. There is only so much you can do for them and so much sympathy you can give before you start to resent them. Throw in some serious daddy issues on both sides and you have an atmosphere ripe for tension.
When I first saw this film, I have to admit I hated it. Okay so hate is a strong word. I didn’t hate it, I was just mostly bored by it, like I said at the beginning. But as I thought about it more, the more I was able to pick up different readings in the visual text. Bergman is so rich in psychological subtext that it is hard to ever take him on his face value. I read that this film gained notoriety because of some sexually explicit scenes that slipped through the radar of the censors. This notoriety helped to make this film one of more successful of Bergman’s films and it reached a wider audience. I keep coming back to that bit of trivia and I wonder how a person not exposed to such metaphysical ruminations handled this film. Maybe they thought it was boring as well. But hopefully some of them realized hours, days or even weeks after the amount of resonance such a simple story could have for everyday life.