Mention of God and spirituality, faith and healing, feel completely unrelated to a film that’s seemingly devoid of all of those things. And yet if we place this Ingmar Bergman film alongside his two previous efforts Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light, The Silence has just as much to say about such topics. The irony of this film is that it says a lot by saying the inverse–nothing. As the title implies, the two sisters who are the focal point of this film speak nothing of God or any kind of faith. God too is silent. No miraculous sign takes place to salvage this storyline. It is what it is, and yet Bergman again works so powerfully once more– even if it’s not quite his intention.
Ester (Ingrid Thulin) is the practical, rational sister, who is also very sick. In fact, it is her health that interrupts their vacation so that they wind up in a hotel in a foreign land. Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) is her sister, the sensuous one who is not afraid to flaunt her body. There’s also a boy, the 10-year-old Johan, who is along for this adventure as well. At first, I assumed that Ester was his mother, but it turns out he’s Anna’s son. It makes for another interesting dynamic because although she can be very touchy-feely with her boy to the point it almost feels uncomfortable, she does not show him a lot of affection. More often she’s aloof or tells him to go off and play somewhere alone.
Things are even worse with Ester because for some reason we don’t really know, they have a strained relationship. You get the sense that they both disapprove of each other for different reasons. Ester’s too restrained. Anna’s too provocative. Their vices come in different forms as well. As Johan entertains himself throughout the hotel, shooting his pop gun, meeting some little people and a friendly old porter, his mother and aunt try and medicate themselves.
Ester combats her illness and bedridden state with cigarettes and alcohol, which probably only help in numbing her senses and blackening her lungs. Anna puts on her most tantalizing outfit and goes out on the town, ready for some quick and easy sex to gratify herself. Again, both sisters dwell on completely different ends of the spectrum, but they really seem to end up in the same place. There is no space or need for a God or spirituality in their lives because they’ve filled the void with other things.
Meanwhile, Johan seems like a normal little boy, who is looking for affection and yet he doesn’t seem to get it, at least not typically. His mother and aunt might truly desire to connect with him at least sometimes, but more often than not it feels like he’s just left to fall through the cracks. He’s easily forgotten.
The sisters part ways after a confrontation where Ester comes in on Anna with her lover. They lay it all out with brutal honesty and the next morning Anna takes Johan with her on the train. Ester cannot bear to be left this way, and as spasms begin to overtake her, she acknowledges a great many of her fears. She’s not ready for death. Anna rides off with little interest in her sister and no doubt, little interest in thoughts of death.
When The Silence came out, it was, no doubt, risque for its frank depiction of sexuality and yet the way Bergman looks at such a topic, suggests that it is not a superficial perspective. What any type of behavior does, really, is to provide a fuller, broader picture of the human who acts it out. Anna and Ester undoubtedly have their insecurities, fears, and desires. We see them acting out on those desires often, and we see their insecurities come out when they fight with each other. It’s yet another fascinating dissection of life, although it looks vastly different than its two predecessors. Bergman’s Persona a few years down the line also seemingly builds on the study of this film, even utilizing a similar dynamic. That’s not to say that The Silence is not worth a look in its own right. It takes on the subject of “faith,” ironically enough, by showing a complete absence of it.