Arthur Gibson

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1095

Three persistent and intensifying impressions assail me as I contemplate the consistent whole that is the film series [consisting of seven films: The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Magician, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence, and Persona].

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1. An initial absence gradually evolves into a disturbing and terrifying presence. There gradually emerges that conviction that theists all too often flippantly cast aside in mistaken reverence or dubious pusillanimity: the ultimate religious experience—which is the only truly religious experience—is supremely personal on both sides: man is reacting not to a mathematical formula but to a living God, and because this living God is communicating not with a sensitized passive photographic plate but rather with the endless restlessness that is a human person, the dialogue must have the gaps and terrors incident upon all personal communication. (p. 12)

2. Indeed the dynamic of these seven films begins with man and ends with God. I see that dynamic sweeping aside restrictive humanism and geometricizing transcendentalism alike. Love is its Alpha and Omega; but what a purifying furnace must not that love traverse between the beginning and the consummation! The trenchant thrust of human longing for certitude and peace and hope for pain is its powering drive; tortuously and deviously that thrust reveals itself as questing, probing, evading, facing, and suffering before it is finally brought to the awful moment of vision. At the beginning, there is a silence that is held to be the proof of God's existence. At the end there is a still more awful silence which reveals itself as the true silence of God. The God imagined to be nonexistent because silent reveals his face as precisely the ultimate respecter of human freedom, whose unflinching rendezvous with man is a supremely immanent or incarnational one.

3. Not only man but also God proceeds through a dynamic evolution in the course of these films: from an initial serene intransigence to a terminal agonizing involvement. This is what the Incarnation is really all about. And transcendentalistic Monophysitism has most brutally savaged the genuine poetic insight of Christians into the reality of this great event, which here emerges so drastically. These films, taken as an integral whole, reveal the mystery of the Incarnation in an absolutely uncompromising way. No room is left for poetic sentimentality, but no whit of ontological poignancy is lost. Moreover, God looms into these films in two ways, each with its own peculiar dynamic: first, there is the felt absence growing gradually throughout the course of the seven films into a more terribly felt presence; then there is the artistic presence of God in a series of characters who "play" God in the sense of rendering present some portion of his dynamic and problematic in his relation with his creatures. The poet can essay what the theologian must sedulously avoid, the penetration, by poetic language and plastic representation, of the dimension of mystery. If the theologian writes in this vein he lapses into unedifying and unappetizing heresy; but the poet can touch the very nerve of the living God in commerce with his living creatures and expose the stunning love affair so long raging between them. This Bergman does: the dynamic of the ontological absence-presence of God runs exactly parallel to the dynamic of the God-mouthpieces. As these mouthpieces become more and more fleshed out, more and more adequate to the reality, so is the initial gnawing absence gradually replaced and supplanted by a terrifying and challenging presence.

But besides a supreme God-mouthpiece, each film in this series has likewise one character who is the epitome of seeking humanity (and since humanity's seeking is itself ambivalent, part real searching and part rebellious febrile fleeing, so the individual film may have more than one such epitome of humanity). And the line of the dynamic of the human seekers runs exactly counter to the line of the God-mouthpieces: as the God-mouthpieces become progressively more complex and austere, so the epitomes of human seeking becomes progressively simpler and more engaging or more reprehensible.

The radically simplified problematic of the entire series, regarded as a solidary unity, might be stated thus. The initial questioning demands: Is God there? And the terminal answer retorts: No, now he is here! (pp. 12-14)

The thrust of the film series … is the clarification of an initial silence apparently indicative of absence into a terminal silence terribly indicative of presence. What seemed at the outset to be a silence proclaiming God's irrelevance to the human cosmos emerges at the end as a silence proclaiming God's supreme relevance (and even exposure) to human freedom. God is silent not because he is not but because he is God, the supreme lover of freedom and thus the supremely silent victim of man's misuse of freedom. (p. 159)

God is luminously present throughout this entire cycle, but the nature of his presence in each film is substantially conditioned by the state of the human protagonists.

Man is most definitely to be taken seriously as a free created moral being, who by his action or sluggishness in action can really affect the future course of his own and the cosmos' destiny. Will man in fact properly respond? That is the unresolved question: and the mastery, the artistic mastery, of Bergman's staging of the final film of the series, with his drastic suppression of the transcendent element and his equally drastic highlighting of the human element, is proof positive of his absolute artistic integrity. For the outcome is still, in our day, really in the balance. God's reality and power do not change; but man is a chameleon even as Alma was so diagnosed by Elizabeth Vogler. Man can alter his stance and his answer from age to age; and man's answering thrust really matters, desperately matters, is indeed crucial. This is no divine comedy; it is a divine-human tragedy in the sense that it can most definitely have a tragic outcome. (pp. 161-62)

The silence of God is a problem at the outset and a tragedy at the end. Initially that silence is a challenge to man and terminally it is the result of man's deliberate rejection….

Every effort to abstract from the intensely personal encounter of God and human creature is intellectualistic cowardice. For at the heart of the created human universe stands freedom; and freedom is the sign of peril, of unpredictability, and of choice. (p. 165)

Arthur Gibson, in his The Silence of God: Creative Response to the Films of Ingmar Bergman (copyright © 1969 by Arthur Gibson; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1969, 171 p.

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