Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Top 100 movies of the 1980s: #3

3. Fanny and Alexander, 1982
Director: Ingmar Bergman

Watching Fanny and Alexander early on, watching this wonderfully elaborate, meticulously detailed Christmas celebration unfold in the early 1900's is truly something to behold. The beginning of the film depicts this family, the Ekdahls, at their happiest. The kids are happy, the adults are lively, making love. The theatre they run is going on successfully. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, the house is so gorgeous and so detailed, everything about this family is so well-established. Then the father, the patriarch of the family, dies suddenly. The mother, Emilie is devastated. The kids, Fanny and Alexander, are stricken with grief.

Before they can fully get over their grief, their mother, weakened by this tragedy, accepts a proposal of marriage from a local bishop. The Bishop at first appears kind enough, willing to take in Emilie's kids, wanting to raise them. But almost immediately, there's this sense of dread both within the Ekdahl family (except for Emilie) and with the kids. The bishop wants Emilie and the kids but doesn't want the rest of her family involved... at all. He practically forbids them from seeing any of them and the kids are subsequently forced to live virtually as prisoners in the bishop's cold, desolate place. Along the way, the film really starts to focus on the little boy, Alexander who is so naturally portrayed by the child actor, Bertil Guve, it's really easy to get involved and feel sympathy for the kid. But credit, obviously, must also go to Ingmar Bergman who characterizes everybody so well, especially Alexander, that by the time the film is almost exclusively about Alexander, you can feel everything the poor kid is feeling. Obviously it's very easy to feel sorry for a kid, any kid, but the bishop really turns out to be such a cold son of a bitch, you can't help but wish something terrible would happen to him.

Fanny and Alexander is a long, sprawling drama and it works so brilliantly because right away you basically get a sense of its pacing. It's very easy to get involved with the film because it just so happens to be one of the most gorgeous looking films ever made. This is not a surprise since Bergman's longtime collaborator Sven Nykvist is well-renown for his excellent work on previous Bergman films (he also did Crimes and Misdemeanors with Woody Allen). First renown for his work with black and white, once Bergman switched to color, Nykvist made great use of it. Making great uses of sharp contrasts of blood red and angelic white. The film even won Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards in 1984, which rarely happens with a foreign language film.

But Fanny and Alexander, much like Au revoir les enfants, is so defiantly great that it could not be ignored by critics and audiences worldwide. It wasn't a big hit in the US because it's so damn long, but it was well-respected and critically lauded all across the world. It's one of the premiere examples of great world cinema. Plus, it's Ingmar Bergman, a legend of the craft. He transformed the fictional drama into deep meditations of life and death, a theme he would explore again and again and would always find a new hidden layer of truth to everything. He wasn't a filmmaker, he was a philosopher who made films. He influenced so many who came after him, he even influenced his own contemporaries. And sure, the majority of his films were bleak, dark, and often melancholy, but Fanny and Alexander is like the end-all, be-all of all Bergman films.

When I say that, I mean it literally. After all, Fanny and Alexander would turn out to be Ingmar Bergman's last major work as a filmmaker. He would go on to make some tv films in Sweden and wrote some screenplays, but Fanny and Alexander was basically his swan song and he put everything into this film, you can tell. He put everything into all his films, really, but Fanny and Alexander is the culmination of years of great filmmaking. Bergman never had a peak, never had a bad period in his entire filmography, always worked at a high level churning out classics left and right, but his filmography definitely ended with a triumphant bang. A final film that any filmmaker would hang his hat on.

Many suspected that the young boy, Alexander, was much like Ingmar Bergman himself. Bergman grew up in a strict household. His father was a Lutheran minister, Ingmar lost his faith at the age of 8. It's no wonder why Alexander is so well-characterized for such a young boy. He represents all of what Ingmar Bergman was feeling as a child and perhaps still felt at the age of 64 when he made this film.

Much like Blue Velvet is both Lynch's best film and best way to be introduced to the man's work, Fanny and Alexander is the same way for me. It's my favorite Bergman film (although, there's still quite a bit of Bergman films that I've yet to see) and it made me appreciate him as a filmmaker moreso than I ever had before. I enjoyed other films I saw by him, but Fanny and Alexander put it all into perspective. It put Bergman into perspective for me, it made me understand what was so great about him because the film represents all of the themes that Bergman had explored in his career and it all unfolds in such a wonderful, formalist manner. It's as if he was saying, "if you still don't understand me after watching this film, you'll never understand me."

There are so many wonderful characters in Fanny and Alexander, so many great moments. It can't just be relegated to being classified as an '80s film. It's so timeless and could've been made at anytime. The fact that it was made at the end of Bergman's career gives it an added weight and sense of importance. This is an extraordinary film by one of cinema's most celebrated filmmakers.

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