You must first accept that Ingmar Bergman's characters are involved, not just in moments of crisis, but in lives of the deepest crisis and pain, or the crushing burdens of his plots will simply seem absurd. The two women in Autumn Sonata …, are what we may now see as archetypal Bergman protagonists….
Some of Bergman's recent films on the theme of how much damage human beings in close contact, through blood and marriage, can do to each other in the name of love, have seemed unfairly grim: challenges to the spectator to suffer as much as to enjoy, and to pay for his increased understanding by a thorough harrowing. In form, they have often seemed, too, no different from a rather intense course of treatment from a mercifully free psychoanalyst. Autumn Sonata escapes this criticism chiefly by doing more to enact the relationship as well as talk about it…. (p. 492)
Bergman's ability to turn peaceful domestic tableaux into glimpses of the mouth of hell is what distinguishes him at his uncomfortable best, and this is one of those occasions.
There are minor quibbles. So powerful and rich are [the] early enactments of the family history that the later scenes, during which both the women speak (however brilliantly) long monologues about their lives as child and mother, seem anti-climactic. The sheer bewildering pace of revelation slows to the clinical entrail-inspection of the patient on the couch: while what we learn bears out what we have seen, there is no compensatory burst of speed to take us to the tape. It isn't fair of us, but in those early reels Bergman has accustomed us to breathing at such high altitudes that we are still looking round disappointedly for new peaks to conquer. (p. 493)
Gavin Millar, "Painful Prelude" (© Gavin Millar, 1979; reprinted by permission of the author and his agents, Judy Daish Associates, Ltd.) in The Listener, Vol. 101, No. 2605, April 5, 1979, pp. 492-93.