Doubting Tomas: Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Winter Light’

“God, why have you created me so eternally dissatisfied? So frightened, so bitter? Why must I realize how wretched I am? Why must I suffer so hellishly for my insignificance? If there is a purpose to my suffering, then tell me, so I can bear my pain without complaint. I’m strong. You made me so very strong in both body and soul, but you never give me a task worthy of my strength. Give my life meaning, and I’ll be your obedient slave.”

Faith was a subject which Ingmar Bergman continued to explore throughout his life. He grew up in a strict religious environment, and oftentimes found the church to be a wellspring of hypocrisy. Bergman watched his father preach beautiful, life-affirming sermons on Sunday, and throughout the rest of the week, this same man would ridicule and abuse the boy without a moment’s hesitation. Bergman began to see the church in a similar light. His spiritual foundation was shaken, and so Bergman began to explore issues of faith, as well as the existence of God, in his work – particularly in the early stages of his career. Out of this internal struggle came Winter Light, one of the director’s most personal pieces.

The film opens as pastor, Tomas Ericsson, prepares to give communion to a dwindling congregation of about five or six individuals. They approach the altar one by one, and receive the wafers and the wine. Soon after, Tomas gives the benediction, and service ends. After the rest of the members leave, Tomas is approached by Jonas Persson, a local fisherman and a loyal member of the congregation. Upon hearing news that China is preparing an atomic bomb, Jonas has been cast into a deep depression, and seeks counsel with the pastor. However, Tomas is suffering a crisis of faith at the time. As Jonas sits in his study, Tomas confesses that he no longer believes in the existence of God, and goes on even further about his own spiritual struggles. None of this serves to help Jonas, and so he leaves. Meanwhile, Tomas reads a lengthy letter from his mistress, a clingy schoolteacher named Marta, who is desperately in love with him, and who is also afflicted with spiritual doubt. Moments later, Tomas hears that Jonas has committed suicide by the river.

Throughout the rest of the film, Tomas is forced to deal with his personal dilemma. Has he foolishly abandoned God, or has God abandoned him? Does God abandon those he loves? Does Tomas have a genuine relationship with God, or is this something that was forced upon him at a young age? And what of God’s silence? Exactly how committed to the faith can we be when God seems so incredibly distant? Can doubt actually draw us closer to God?

The answers do not come easily in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece. The film is as cold as its snow-drenched settings. This film is a dense, raw experience into one man’s struggle with faith and the search for redemption. It is not an easy experience, but it is most definitely rewarding. The performances are amazing. Gunnar Bjornstrand gives the performance of his career as Tomas. This may be one of the greatest performances of all time. Max von Sydow is eerily effective as Jonas. Ingrid Thulin is amazing as schoolteacher Marta, and we feel that she genuinely loves and cares for Tomas. The writing and direction are superb. The poetry of Ingmar Bergman’s words will move you to tears, and there are images in this film that will haunt you long after the film has ended.

Seek out this film, as well as the other two films in Bergman’s “faith trilogy”: Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence.

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