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Reviewed September 19th, 2001 by David Nusair


Watching an Ingmar Bergman movie is unlike any moviegoing experience you’re likely to encounter. He doesn’t make pictures for pure entertainment, nor is he interested in creating a linear experience for the audience. Rather, he’s more concerned with themes and issues that are most pressing to him, with the primary theme being death.

Cries and Whispers is no exception. Set around the turn of the century (the last one; this movie was made in the early ‘70s), the film takes place almost entirely in a huge mansion. Within the palatial estate reside four women (three sisters and a maid). One of the sisters is dying (painfully) of a terminal form of cancer, while the other two are attempting to care for her (but really, the maid does all the work). The film contains very little dialogue and alternates between the present and various flashbacks illustrating why each of these women (except for the maid) is so unhappy.

This is not an entertaining film. Don’t believe anyone that tells you otherwise. They may try and tell you that it’s an “exquisite and evocative rumination on life and death,” (which, really, is just pretentious doublespeak for boring), but it’s also tedious and monotonous (not to mention incredibly slow-paced). Nothing much happens over the course of 90 minutes – we’re just presented with these three lives and shown exactly why each of them is so miserable. These are not exactly sympathetic (or even compelling) characters, so why should we be expected to remain interested for an hour and a half?

There are some thought-provoking insights into the human condition here, but they’re spread very thin. This film could have easily been about 20 minutes and accomplished the same thing. But on the plus side, there are two things worth recommending about this movie: The whole look of the picture and the acting. The former is so impressive because Bergman has chosen to fill every scene with red – either in small doses (a table cloth) or large (red walls). This is a movie that is more entertaining on a purely visceral level – and believe me, after an hour or so of whining and complaining, you’ll be searching for something (anything) else to keep you entertained. Secondly, the performances are all top-notch, particularly the actress playing the dying woman. She’s frequently called upon to moan and wail, and she’s quite convincing. This certainly isn’t a glamorous part. The other three women are good as well, if a little on the understated side (though I particularly enjoyed one scene in which one sister told the other how much she hated her, and then went into all the reasons why. Harsh).

Cries and Whispers may be (to some) a refreshing antidote to the barrage of mindless action flicks and idiotic comedies of late, but the fact that it has something to say and has been directed with a certain amount of flair in no way changes the fact that it’s about as interesting as watching slugs race.

Audio: Cries and Whispers can be watched either with a one-channel Scandinavian track or one-channel English track. Both are equally unimpressive. But since there is nothing but dialogue (and the occasional piece of music) in this film, they both do the job.

The box for Cries and Whispers describes this as a “lush new transfer” and it shows. Presented anamorphically at a ratio of 1.85:1, Cries and Whispers has probably never looked better. The various shades of red seen throughout the picture are strikingly rendered. This looks more like a new movie, rather than one that is just under 30 years old. Kudos to Criterion for this exceptional transfer.

Extras: There’s one extra but it’s a doozy. It’s a rare, 53-minute interview with Ingmar Bergman. Along with a friend, Bergman talks about everything from life, love to (especially) death. This is a fascinating interview and is certainly more entertaining than the feature itself. Bergman’s comments about the death of his wife and his impending death are touching and heart-breaking. The DVD is also accompanied by a short booklet which offers facts about Bergman and about the production.

Conclusion: While Cries and Whispers itself may be a dull film, this DVD is worth checking out if only for the thought-provoking interview with Bergman that accompanies it.


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