Fanny and Alexander is a feast of a film, bursting with characters, ideas and emotions. In it, Bergman celebrates sensation, imagination and the power of illusion, pitting them against his lifelong anxieties about religion and the difficulty of human connection.
Set in the early years of the twentieth century, the movie tracks the fortunes of an upper-middle-class Swedish family, headed by the widow Helena Ekdahl. We first meet the Ekdahls at the exuberant Christmas feast that opens the film. Her son Gustav is a restraunteur, a lusty, sentimental man who loves his wife and paws the maids. Karl, a professor is the weak son, drunk, chronically in debt, and abusive towards his German wife. The oldest son, Oskar, manages the family theater in which his young wife Emilie is one of the actresses. While rehearsing Hamlet one winter day, Oskar falls ill, and soon dies.
Emilie is left with two young children, ten-year- old Alexander and Fanny, eight. Bereaved Emilie, still in search of her identity outside the theater, falls under the hypnotic influence of Bishop Vergerus, a handsome, charismatic Lutheran minister whose charming exterior masks a cruel fanaticism. He proposes marriage, and, in a casual but chilling aside, requests that Emilie and the children bring nothing from their former lives when they move in with him. Emilie and the children transfer from the gay, affectionate Ekdahl world to the spare, rigid Vergerus household.
The Bishop takes a special dislike to Alexander, who lives for long stretches in worlds of his own making. We learn that the Bishop's first wife and two children drowned in the river that races past the house. Alexander tells a maid that he saw the ghost of the first wife, who told him that the Bishop locked them up and that she and the children drowned while trying to escape him. The maid informs on the boy. Enraged, the Bishop torments Alexander psychologically, applies a carpet beater to his backside, then locks him up for the night in the attic. Although disturbing to watch, the sequence brilliantly brings to life one of the movie's major themes. Alexander may have lied about the facts, but in using his imagination to rearrange the facts he reveals a larger truth. The Bishop does in fact seek to imprison and control the souls of those around him.
The second half of the movie deals with Emilie's struggle to free herself and her children from the Bishop. As part of this struggle, Alexander is led deeper into the realms of magic and the supernatural. Unlike some of Bergman's earlier, bleaker works, Fanny and Alexander allows the life-denying rigidity of Vergerus to be subsumed by the warmth and humanity of the Ekdahls. At a lavish family banquet, Alexander's uncle Gustav makes a speech extolling the virtues of living in the "little world" by which he seems to mean both the theater and the secular world of everyday human interaction. Bergman uses Gustav to state a decided bias toward small, made-made illusions over grand theistic ones.
This bare bones summary of the three hour theatrical release (a five hour version aired on Swedish televison) cannot do justice to the movie's teeming richness. Everything Bergman learned in forty years of film and theater directing is brought to a triumphant apotheosis. The sets, particularly Helena Ekdahl's apartment and summer house, are lavish; the period costumes are colorful and elaborate; Sven Nyquist's camera moves fluidly from sweeping long shots to lingering close ups. The enormous cast is superb. Gunn Walgren's mobile features summon up the soul of Helena Ekdahl, and Bergman veteran Erland Josephson imbues family friend Isak Jacobi with mystery and warmth. The movie's most mesmerizing performance is Jan Malmsjo as Vergerus; his abrupt shifts from charm to cruelty will make your skin crawl.
References to Shakespeare's Hamlet are peppered throughout the movie. In its balance, richness, humanity and dazzling theatrical skill, Fanny and Alexander reaches the Bard's exalted level.
on November 18, 2011
We were stunned by the beauty of this transfer of the Fanny and Alexander restoration! I have had the DVD box set of this movie for 4 to 5 years, and have watched it every year as Christmas approaches. Having been quite familiar with that most recent version, I can safely say that the blu-ray is quite superior. The colors and clarity of detail are most definitely worth the upgrade. Most of the extras have also been transferred in HD from their original sources. Lastly, this is one of those discs that tells your Blu-ray player exactly where you last were watching the movie, and proceeds to find that place, and ask you if you wish to resume watching from that point. I love that feature, especially with the 5 hour version of the film. If you love this film, you really should not miss out on this Blu-Ray.
on October 12, 2006
I've been meaning to comment on this film for a few days now, but I haven't had the time or the energy (been really busy lately) to do so. Maybe it was Sven Nykvist's recent passing (btw, his Oscar-winning work in this film is one of unparalleled magnificence and beauty) that inspired me to write about it. There are so many things I want to say about this film that I don't even know where to begin. I guess I'll start by saying that this has been the shortest 5 hours I've spent watching a film. At first I had planned to watch it in parts as the film is divided in acts, but I was so instantly taken, engrossed and fascinated, that I just felt like watching the whole thing in one sitting. I know that a 5-hour long film can sound very intimidating and exhausting, but the film is specifically divided in 5 distinguishable acts that make it more digestible, and believe me, it's so absorbing that you will barely notice you spent all that time watching it; it's that good. I've skimmed through the 3-hour theatrical version, and while it is a great film, some of my favorite parts are either shortened or completely cut from the film, which for me, lessens the impact the whole 5-hour extended TV version has. Both versions work, of course, but if you want to get a greater understanding of Bergman's vision, I totally recommend the extended version.
Now onto the film itself. What can I say? It's magnificent. A grand, rich and glorious tapestry of life, family, love, hate, imagination, art, fantasy, reality, religion, magic, death, faith, spirituality, God, despair, redemption, youth, innocence, maturity, old age and the supernatural. Fanny and Alexander is all of these things and even more. I don't want to go into much plot detail, but point out what I liked so much about the film by mentioning some of my favorite scenes and commenting on them. And in this film there are plenty. Rarely I've felt the sense of familial warmth and love in a film or elsewhere as I have with Fanny and Alexander. The first act shows us a Christmas dinner family celebration, and it is instantly intoxicating and beguiling, and you're instantly drawn to these flawed-yet-loving and caring characters that constitute this large, happy family and Bergman's direction is so vivid that you totally feel the joy in sharing and the affection and love. One of my favorite scenes in this part is Oscar's (the family patriarch and owner of the family theater)heartfelt and candid speech about the importance of the theater, this "little world" as it is referred to, and how art can reflect the "big world" and help us have a greater endurance during bad times. This theme is more thoroughly explored in an enchanting and beautiful scene in which Oscar explains to Fanny and Alexander through the simple story of a chair how art is connected to life, how important and essential art is in enriching our lives, helping us have a deeper awareness and appreciation of the world at large, and how there is more to what meets the eye, an inner life lying underneath the surface of things. Bergman was raised within a very strict and opressive family, and I'm pretty sure that the Ekdahls is the kind of family (Loving, supportive, encouraging, freethinkers) he would've liked to be raised in. I echo his (likely) sentiment. Likewise, if I got a profound sense of love and family in the first act, when tragedy strikes in the second act, I got a great sense of suffering and despair. One of the most strikingly moving scenes in the film involves Oscar's wife, Emilie, giving these primal, animal cries of grief over her dead husband; the scene is simply heartwrenching. Similarly engrossing, is the open and penetrating conversation between Emilie and the bishop about her faith and her spiritual confusion and longing. But in the third and fourth acts is when the characters' resilience are really put to the test. None of the pain, humiliation and the frailty of the human heart throughout the film is better illustrated in a scene of tremendous impact in which Alexander is severely punished by the bishop and Fanny has no other option but to stand and watch as her brother is being physically abused, only moments later to see her defiantly turn down the bishop's affections. Another favorite scene during this act is Helena's - the family matriarch - beautiful and eloquent soliloquy to her son Oscar about the joys and pains in life, the futility of fighting against its forces and just living it as it comes. It is what it is. Another standout is Isak Jacobi's (a family friend and magician) metaphorical story that encapsulates the importance and at the same time the futility of searching for meaning in life. Some of the film's most intriguing, revealing and fantastical moments are in this act. In what's probably the greatest moment in a film full of great moments, is Alexander's encounter with a mysterious character named Ismael. I think this scene is the climax of the film as it brings closure to Alexander's arch. There's also a deep sense of the supernatural as it is suggested that everything, fantasy and reality, the logical and unexplainable, the material and the etheral, the good and even the bad, is a manifestation of God. I feel that with those statements, Bergman is telling us that he probably managed to finally exorcise the demons that had been haunting him throughout his life, or at least come to terms with them, as his onscreen alterego Alexander has as well. All of this told, detailed and presented with the skill of a master storyteller.
I was fully enraptured by this film. I love the way it beautifully conveyed the relevance of art and imagination and how they're actually essential for humanity. I loved how it showed life in all its joyful, fantastical, realistic, tragic, resigned and ultimately hopeful glory. I loved its sense of completeness yet also leaving the viewer with an air of mystery that implies the endless possibilities of life. A masterpiece and easily one of my favorite films ever.
on January 9, 2004
Having very little basis for comparison (since my only prior exposure to Bergman has been The Seventh Seal), I don't feel qualified to judge this film against a "Bergman standard," but I do, however, doubt that he has directed another movie as perfect as Fanny and Alexander (F&A). It is more than worthy of the 4 Oscars, Golden Globe, Guldbagge and BAFTA awards it has received. Classic movies that are great on the whole may suffer from bad acting, directing, or even whole scenes that briefly go out of focus. That, however, is not the case with this film. It draws one in and keeps one alert and interested throughout. The directing and acting is surprisingly good. Mostly superb.
The story revolves around a wealthy Swedish family who run the local theater in Uppsala, and the severe upbringing of siblings F&A in the early 1900's (the story begins on Christmas, 1907).
Bergman seems to have a unique talent of combining drama with horror, fantasy, and comedy--this I also found to be the case with The Seventh Seal, but in F&A, this talent is more strongly presented; one minute you can find yourself laughing at humorous --sometimes obscene-- acts and remarks, and the next you may find yourself feeling choked up or horrified. The film is very strong, very real, and strongly recommended to anyone who wants to experience looking at film on a whole new level.
I cannot complete this review without giving affectionate appreciation to my friend Karen for recommending The Seventh Seal, thus inspiring me to watch this film--thank you.
on August 21, 2004
The Criterion Collection is currently working on two separate editions of the Ingmar Bergman masterpiece Fanny and Alexander. The theatrical edition ($29.95) presents the Academy Award-winning 188-minute version of the film in a two-disc set with audio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie, a collection of introductions by Bergman to eleven of his films, and an assortment of trailers. The special-edition five-disc boxed set ($59.95) includes the complete contents of the theatrical edition as well as the five-hour director's cut of the film, Bergman's own feature-length documentary The Making of Fanny and Alexander, a new 40-minute video of exclusive interviews with cast and crew, and Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film-a one-hour filmed interview with the famed director. Look for both editions of Fanny and Alexander in November!
on June 27, 2004
This ORIGINALLY THREE HOUR LONG film was extended for Swedish Television a couple of years after its release. I've seen both versions and must say that the story makes much more sense in the five hour version, and I hope that's the one we eventually will get. However, some stuff (15 to 20 minutes or so) could have been left out in the extended version without having affected the story line, but all shots are nevertheless enchantingly beautiful. Bergman has said that this film (apparently his last for cinema) sums up all his work as a director, and I have no doubt that his career in film couldn't have ended on a higher note. The movie is flawless and powerful, plus on DVD we'll be able to watch it in the widescreen format!
on July 3, 2003
I agree ... that Fanny and Alexander is not just a great film, but that it is a career retrospective of Bergman's art encompassing a universe of humanity and the artist's concerns and feelings for all of life.
As such, it is imperative that the US DVD release should not only come soon, but that it should be the complete five hour version released in Europe, but never seen here in the US.
With the Oscar winning art direction, costumes and cinematography, this is Bergman's most luxuriant film that sucks you in with a sweep that never drags. In repeated viewings in theaters and on VHS, I never had a moment of distraction, but always wanted more. Now we can have it, in one of the greatest films of all time.
on December 20, 2004
Well, I gotta say it. This is Bergman's greatest work. It's quite a shock watching the complete miniseries and comparing it to the theatrical release; I can't imagine how they decided what to cut and why. The "new" parts only add to the film's depth and beauty, and I could have easily sat through all of it in a movie theater. Well, okay, maybe with a bathroom break in the middle.
I'm going to lend the miniseries to my friends and tell them to skip the theatrical release altogether, which is still great in its own right, but is, in retrospect, a bit more choppy and uneven somehow. The miniseries is wonderful, it moves smoothly and beautifully through some stunning scenes that just work so well on so many levels; it's really not so different than walking into a novel by Dickens or Garcia Marquez. My favorite "new" parts were the surreal dream sequence towards the end, the funny yet sad fight between Carl and his German wife at the summer house, and also Fanny and Alexander's father's death scene, which is a bit longer than in the theatrical release and very moving.
Even if you're not such a fan of such philosophical and weighty movies, which this is in the most unpretentious and creative ways possible, the powerful emotions and events of Fanny and Alexander may still well turn you into a Bergman fan. Enjoy it and watch it over and over again, it seems there's always more there. Spend a weekend with it, it's truly a great work of art.
on August 29, 2001
'Fanny and Alexander' is what a crowning work should be - it is a prism through which all Bergman's work is refracted; the great unifying work to which his films were leading: it is impossible to look now at older Bergmans without seeing intimations of 'Fanny'. It is a tribute to the theatre, dreams, labyrinths, childhood family reunions, costume dramas, old mansions, bric-a-brac, toys; a hymn to Scandanvian cinema, literature and art; a rethinking of 'Wild Strawberries'. Many Bergman films dramatise the torment of the artist, his struggles with himself, his art, his family, his society, his (if there is such a thing) God. 'Fanny' is a portrait of the artist as a young boy, as he struggles with himself, his art, his family, his society, his (if there is such a thing), God. Even Death. We characteristically see Alexander as a putative artist - fibbing, dreaming, playing with his magic lantern, mirrors and miniature theatre - in this way, the unavoidable pains of life can be transcended and subverted, but never defeated, by the labyrinth of Art. Every type of Bergman film is here - sexual comedy, sumptuous period drama, social melodrama, metaphysical allegory, passion of the artist, marital conflict, dream narrative etc. Narrative registers become fluid in an attempt to defeat the rigid, violent dogma of the Bishop. 'Fanny and Alexander' is dense, rich and inexhaustible.
Having seen the theatrical release of "Fanny and Alexander" several times through the years, it's taken me a while to set aside time to watch the miniseries from whence it came. The film, of course, won four Oscars including 1984's Best Foreign Film--and is widely regarded as Ingmar Bergman's most personal masterpiece. I've always appreciated the film, but never really put it among my favorites--but having experienced it anew with a 5+ hour miniseries version, that might just have changed.
I'm not going to delve into the plot particularly, but more my response to the viewing experience. The opening takes place during a grand family celebration. In the extended version, this is a full ninety minutes. Within this time, we meet immediate family, extended family, servants, friends--literally dozens of people. You get a sense of relationships, a real feeling of the dynamic within the household--and a true appreciation of the theatrical roots of the Ekdahl clan. Fanny and Alexander play minor roles in all the merriment--no one is given more screen time than anyone else. And while this was all very nice, you might not see the real emotional impact of this opening until the end of the film. In fact, the light tone of the beginning doesn't prepare you for what is to follow.
In subsequent episodes, Fanny and Alexander lose their father. Then a year later, their mother remarries a religious leader forsaking her past and material belongings. It is in these strict, unforgiving settings that the real drama starts to unfold. And while I had taken a break after the first episode, I continued to watch the rest of "Fanny and Alexander" in one sitting. It is absolutely enthralling drama. With nuanced performances, the battle of wills that plays out for the next three hours is like great theater. It's intense, thrilling, powerful, haunting, even at times ethereal--a pitch perfect screenplay with words chosen carefully for maximum impact. Much acclaim has been given to the cinematography and direction of "Fanny and Alexander," and that's all excellent--but the WORDS are perfection.
There are plenty of terrific performances that contribute to the impact of the film. I was especially captivated by Ewa Froling as Emilie, Fanny and Alexander's mother. And Jan Malmsjo, in the showiest role as the new stepfather, is alternately evil and strangely sympathetic. The scenes between these two will resonate with me for a long time. So consider me a convert--I am now raving about "Fanny and Alexander." And while the opening may seem a bit long and uneventful, I promise you'll see the sweetness and impact it brings to the ending. So watch the longer version, stick with it and you'll be greatly rewarded. KGHarris, 11/06.
Criterion Blu-Ray Specs (3 discs) Includes:
The Theatrical Version
The Television Version
The Making of Fanny and Alexander (feature length documenatry)
Special Features: Same as the 5 Disc Regular DVD Edition:
High-definition digital restorations of the television and theatrical versions of Fanny and Alexander
High-definition digital restoration of Ingmar Bergman's feature-length documentary The Making of "Fanny and Alexander"
Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film, a sixty-minute conversation between Bergman and film critic Nils Petter Sundgren recorded for Swedish television in 1984
Audio commentary on the theatrical version by film scholar Peter Cowie
A Bergman Tapestry, a documentary featuring interviews with cast and crew
Costume sketches and footage of the models for the film's sets
Optional English-dubbed soundtrack for the theatrical version
PLUS: A booklet featuring essays by documentarian and film historian Stig Björkman, novelist Rick Moody, and film scholar Paul Arthur