Although I agree with the general consensus that Bergman was one of the greatest directors of all time, I must say that in recent years, I have gotten disenchanted with his works.
When I was a teenager I devoured all his works, and even the lesser ones were heavenly to me. Yet nowadays, I find his unwavering and relentless pessimism rather unnerving, and his works do not struck a chord within me. They seem like lifeless abstractions about human weakness and futility. Perhaps as a growing adolescent I was more attuned to such messages, whereas today they fall on deaf ears. I do not subscribe to simple inescapable wretchedness and believe that life is, if anything, an opportunity, or a stage to bring out one's own convictions.
Despite all this apparent lack of respect for Bergman, I must say that Fanny and Alexander is undoubtedly a masterpiece. It is not only the culmination of all his previous body of work; it is, in fact, groundbreaking and a step further into the realm of modern cinema. (There is a subtle hint of a surreal and ghostly Lynchean world there.) It basically shows that, whatever you, or I, for that matter, may think or say of Bergman, he is still a genius.
The story resonated with me both on an intellectual and emotional level. The movie, which was awarded Oscars and has been praised worldwide, is in its 188 minutes unfortunately only a truncated version of the 312 minutes of the original TV version. And yes, I did get a sense that something was missing. It was not necessarily essential for the general comprehension or development, but it felt like skipping dessert.
Why am I so fond of this particular movie of his? Partly it might be nostalgia, but his message actually resonates with who I am now, building a bridge to who I was in my idolizing Bergman years.
It is a family epic at first glance, but it is actually about both the marvels and horrors of childhood. Childhood has its magical aspects, where one believes in the reality of ghosts and spirits and one's ability to conjure up impossible feats and even miracles; at the same time, it is a fertile breeding ground for fear and superstition. It is this ambiguous world that the movie enters incredibly and skillfully.
It is a fantasy that brings out both the best and worst in humankind; yet surprisingly, for Bergman, despite occasional grim and desolate tones, the movie overall is uplifting and does not destroy the ideals, but reanimates them. With this in mind it might explain why he started shooting the pillow-fighting scene first, perhaps as a reminder that it is childhood and magic that ought to be praised over the pessimistic and hopeless world created by adults.
Believing in magic may be a double-edged sword, but it is a way of blending the world of fantasy, the “little world” of the arts, theater, movies, literature with the exasperating and cruel real world outside. It is the very same equilibrium that fascinated me, and I can understand why Bergman chose to retire after his last official, paradoxically both least and most realistic work. It ends so beautifully and when all is said (and done), there is really nothing else to add.