“Life is a journey.”
This trite and overused phrase must be some song lyric or the beginning of an angst-ridden adolescent poem. It is a cheap and sappy way to discuss the trials and adventures and difficulties of life and yet it is so difficult to escape. Many of our great works of literature lift up such a notion of life being a journey (Dante’s Divine Comedy, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Isben’s Peer Gynt and so on) but they do it without making the none too subtle and oh so tired statement, “life is a journey.” I would suggest that Bergman’s film The Silence as a work that also considers this 1980s rock anthem lyric but in a brilliant and suggestive way that assures you that the syrup of the phrase will not be offered to you as drink.
If you haven’t seen the film I recommend you watch it, but with a caveat emptor. It is a little surreal, a little more worthy of the beret wearing, bongo playing viewer then some of his other films that I have recently watched. I recommend watching Through a Glass Darkly, and Winter Light, before watching The Silence of which all three are considered part of Bergman’s “God Trilogy.” You could also read my blog posts about those movies if you were so inclined.
If The Silence is about the journey of life we find ourselves at a stopping point offering us the option to pause and reflect. The beginning and end of the film takes place on a train (big, big, big metaphor suggesting the journey – seriously, it is a really, super obvious metaphor… but then I could be reading into it), but the film primarily takes place in a hotel in a country that is strange for the main characters. Perhaps another metaphor that calls to be unpacked?
Now before I go any further I want to speak to all of the elite, snobby film students and scholars out there. Go away. By training I am a theologian and I will not be discussing the significance of each and every shot or the meaning of the hot dog dancing in the bun or the idea of the clocks in every scene. These are important things that merit conversation, but not here. I have read a number of articles written by you folk and thank you for the analysis, but they will not be primarily discussed here. If you want that kind of reflection on Bergman’s movies find a web site that will offer it and get your kicks there.
For this post I am offering a theological reflection to a provocative film that I feel is speaking to the notion of the journey of life. Two of the main characters, Ester and Ana, are committed to their approach to life and the third, Johan (Ana’s young, circa ten-year-old son) is yet to commit to a way of living. Ester, the aunt, has chosen a life of scholarship, a life of the mind, of discipline, of control and of doing what is right. Ana, the mother, has chosen a life of the experience, a life that is focused on passion, on the joys of the moment. Johan has yet to choose. As a young boy he is poised between the two paths; pulled either way.
During their stay at the hotel we see both women fully invested in their ways of living. Ester writes, translating languages into things she understands, listens to Bach, and stays in a controlled environment (her hotel room). Ana goes into the strange world, taking chances, having sexual encounters, and existing in what many would describe as a free and open environment. Two different approaches to living.
As I said, I see Johan as pulled between the two. He spends time in the sensual with his mother as well as in his adventures in the hotel or in the academic and controlled with his aunt. He has the opportunity to delve into the sexual at different levels various scenes in the hallways of the hotel, or he can flee into the controlled and safe space of the known and understood as he finds in the hotel room with his aunt.
In his writings Søren Kierkegaard has suggested different approaches to life that seem to connect with the dichotomy offered by the two women. He discusses the aesthetic which focuses on the joy, the experience of life. This is not a wasteful hedonism where one’s appetite is the master of one’s life but is a way of living that looks for life’s pleasures with depth and value. Then there is the ethical when looks to the rules, the morals, and the values that may or may not embrace the pleasure of the experience. Some may say that Kierkegaard is suggesting a hierarchy of living wherein one starts with the aesthetic and then moves towards the ethical. I don’t want to get into an argument with Kierkegaardian scholars about this, but I don’t think that is the case. Rather than suggesting that there is a hierarchy, or developmental stages to living I would suggest that they are simply different approaches to life. Some may choose to live the perfect, controlled, rule-based life and others may choose to follow the beauty and joy of life.
Thus we have Ana with the aesthetic and Ester with the ethical. Now where is God in all of this? This is, after all, a theological reflection.
The silence of the movie is the absence of God. The approaches to living that either sister embraces need not have the presence of the divine. During the movie we learn that Ester and Ana’s father died well before the beginning of the film, contributing to some of the tension that the sisters face. Many scholars who have written on this film suggest that the father represents God. Thus when the father died it was in actuality God who died for the two women and for reality of the film. I disagree with this interpretation. I suggest that when the father died a specific understanding of God died and the women are trying to find a new sense of life without the presence of their father (read arcane/outdated/obsolete faith). This is similar to the wrestling with faith and doubt that I see Thomas struggling with in the previous movie, Winter Light. The sisters are following their own paths to living without God and Johan is pulled between the two.
It seems as if we, the viewers, are faced with an either/or until the end of the film. Yet there is a turn. Near the end of the film, before saying goodbye to her nephew, Ester offers Johan a note which has the following words and translations:
Fear (or Anxiety)
Here is where I believe God speaks. In this note Johan is offered a third path, one of following the Spirit or the divine. It is a path that can lead to fear or anxiety because there is a great deal of unknowing in such a path, in believing and trusting, but there is a deeper joy to be found. This is the third path and this note breaks the silence of God that pervades throughout the rest of the movie.
One need not abandon the ethical or the aesthetic to follow the Spirit but those must serve the following of God. An arcane faith holds to a God that demands obedience to the rules or a God that is only found in pleasure. With or without a conception of God either path offers a thin life. Johan is offered the path of faith in a God that transects the two.
Now you may say that I am reading into the movie and projecting my own thoughts into the characters of Ana, Ester, and Johan and I would say that you are right. Well it is my blog and I can do that. And, that is part of the purpose of good art. Good art invites us in and challenges us to find the place where our narrative can be understood in the narrative/idea/experience that is being suggested by the work of art. In this case I see the narrative of living that is placed before us all and three paths suggested.