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The Scrivener: Fanny And Alexander - 6

…As the story proceeds, we realise that Bergman is telling us about his experience of and views about the conflict in his own life between the theatre and the church, experience and morality, happiness and suppression…

Brian Barratt continues his inquiry into the symbolism and meaning of Ingmar Bergman’s brilliant film Fanny and Alexander.

This is the sixth of eight articles on Bergman’s historic epic. To read earlier articles please click on The Scrivener in the menu on this page.

And do visit Brian’s entertaining Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

Some Motifs And Symbols

We see family get-togethers round the dining table on several occasions in Ingmar Bergman's fascinating film 'Fanny and Alexander'. Three of them are very significant in conveying the mood of the story.

In Part 1, The 'Ekdahl Family Celebrates Christmas', we find the extended family of highly individual characters in three generations all seated with their servants around a magnificent spread.

This merry, noisy gathering is in direct contrast to the initially dour dinner in 'Babette's Feast', the charming and popular Danish film. It is full of joy, concluding with a lively dance all round the house, during which they sing a delightfully rhythmic seasonal song. While that is happening, Uncle Gustav Adolf's predilection for the young servant Maj is made quite clear, when he hustles her into a corner for a couple of groping giggling minutes.

The family gathering we see later, in Part 3, 'Breakup', is totally different. Emilie Ekdahl, the children's mother, has married again after the death of her husband Oscar. Her new husband is a bishop, Edvard Vergerus, who seems to be gentle and understanding but turns out to be the villain of the piece. At this meal, Emilie is already discovering the limitations that will be placed on her and the children, but still feels positive and hopeful about it all.

The third main meal we see occurs towards the end of the film, in the Epilogue. Emilie has survived a terrible period of her life, left the bishop's family behind, and rejoined her own kith and kin and the devoted friends of the family's theatre. Fanny and Alexander are once again part of the encompassing clan they have always loved, but the boy is not entirely unscathed. He bears scars and is haunted by one of the ghosts that appear (or are they imagined?) in the film.

In the five-hour version on two DVD's, another motif appears in a way that might appear to be merely a means of separating scenes but is, I believe, symbolic of facets of the story. It is the motif of running water. The Prologue, each of the five parts, and the Epilogue, are introduced by shots of the river which runs through the town. It is shown as variously calm, fast-flowing, and turbulent. As such, it seems to represents the changing emotions experienced by Alexander as he faces up to the changes in his life that take place during this crucial year.

In Part 3, 'Break-up', there is a short sequence where Alexander pauses on his way home from school to the bleak, Puritanical bishop's house and the new family life he hates. He stops to look over the bridge at the rushing water below. If we consider this small sequence carefully, it seems to symbolise the inexorable rush of events from which he can find no way out. It is also a visual echo of what ghosts told him was the fate of the bishop's wife and daughters.

Brilliant work by the Oscar-winning photographer, Sven Nykvist, working closely with Bergman, brings forth yet another set of symbols which might easily be missed on first viewing. As the story proceeds, we realise that Bergman is telling us about his experience of and views about the conflict in his own life between the theatre and the church, experience and morality, happiness and suppression.

There are several shots of the outside of the theatre, and several views of the cathedral towering over surrounding buildings. As motifs of the double-edged theme, they come to their peak when there is a magnificent shot taken directly in front of the theatre, looking upward, showing it as a small building totally overshadowed by the looming spires of the cathedral.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2008


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