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FANNY AND ALEXANDER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Bertil Guve, Pernilla Allwin, Ewa Groling, Gun Wallgren, Pernilla Wallgren, Jan Malmsjo, Allan Edwall, Borje Ahlstedt, Erland Josephson, Jarl Kulle
Director:  Ingmar Bergman
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  Theatrical Version 188 Minutes, Television Version 312 Minutes
Release Date:  November 17, 2004

“I know we’ll hurt each other…but I’m not afraid.”

Film ****

When making Fanny and Alexander, the legendary Ingmar Bergman stated candidly that it would be his last feature film.  It was a proclamation that could only be compared to the announcement of the Beatles breaking up…fans all over the world had to carry a heavy burden in their hearts knowing that no longer would a new piece of art come our way created by an artist that so singularly defined his medium.

It also marked a return to Sweden for the master after a tax dispute exile, as well as a daring financial proposition:  though $9 million isn’t a big deal in America, for a Swedish film in 1983, it was almost unheard of.  Even larger was Bergman’s concept of a 5 hour long film, which he eventually compromised on, trimming a 3 hour version for international theatrical release while keeping his 4 part longer version intact for Swedish television.

Criterion proves once again to be the cineaste’s best friend by release a superb five disc box set that includes both versions of Bergman’s swan song.  In fact, I’d wager for many of us outside of Sweden, this delicious DVD marks our first chance to see the filmmaker’s uncut, uncompromised version as he intended.

As the theatrical version opens, we are looking at a toy stage.  The back partition lifts to show Alexander (Guve) looking in keenly.  Bergman illustrates the idea of his movie in one sweet stroke:  we are going to be looking at the world through a child’s point of view.  For Alexander, childhood is a magical time, where a big apartment comes alive, where statues seem to move, and where a spot under a dining table can be a world all unto its own.

The film is split with an intermission, but one could easily diagram it into three major acts.  In the first, we celebrate Christmas with Fanny (Allwin) and Alexander’s theatrical family, where we meet all kinds of wonderful characters.  Most notable are the glorious matriarch Helena (Gun Wallgren), the children’s sickly father Oscar (Edwall), their pretty mother Emilie (Froling), the busty big-hearted nursemaid Maj (Pernilla Wallgren), the womanizing Gustav Adolf (Kulle) and the failed Carl (Ahlstedt).

Their celebration is big, colorful and wondrous, and one might begin to view the movie as Fellini-esque, until the death of Oscar the father causes a turn in tone.  Soon, Emilie has accepted a marriage proposal from Edvard (Malmsjo), a bishop who insists she and her children leave all property and friends and family behind as they come to live with him in his parish.  Gone is the cornucopia of colors; replacing it is a cold, gray world hardly fit for children.

The bishop is strict, and he and Alexander frequently find themselves at odds, particularly when Alexander tells a fanciful story of what MIGHT have happened to the bishop’s deceased first wife and daughters.  Emilie begins to realize her mistake, but her options seem limited.

The third act involves the freeing of the children by a family friend, Isak (Josephson), a Jewish antique dealer whose shop seems more alive than any setting we’ve seen in the film.  Endless props, bits of furniture and so on make for mazes easy for a child to get amusingly lost in.  It is there that Alexander contemplates the true nature of God, intercut with a strange unfolding scenario at the bishop’s residence that seems to finally resolve everything for the young family.

You could call Fanny and Alexander a summation of Ingmar Bergman’s entire film career…it covers many of the themes the master had explored over the decades, from birth, life and death to the true meaning of God, from seeing family as a circle of love and warmth to seeing it as people who try but fail to really communicate, and from seeing religion as something cold and oppressive to seeing it as something filled with wonder and possibility.  All of these are contemplated through the eyes of the very young, so one could also say that Bergman finished his movie career by going back to the beginning.

The film won international acclaim and took home an impressive four Academy Awards.  It was as inspiring to long time Bergman admirers as it was to those getting their first look at his work.  It told a basic human story with Bergman’s sense of wonder, and at the same time, it was a technical marvel, filled with marvelous acting, beautiful sets and costumes, and the masterful camerawork of Sven Nykvist. 

But now, as mentioned, movie lovers have a chance to behold the full 5 hour version as Bergman originally intended.  It’s divided into four episodes, about an hour and a quarter each, and when viewed as such, you really get a chance to take in and digest Bergman’s full vision in a highly palatable format.  The most improved segment is the bishop’s house, where we finally see how Alexander used his imagination as a means of escaping from his new bleak world.  One gets the sense that Bergman felt his own imagination was fueled by mentally escaping his own strict religious upbringing.  The theatrical version is excellent, but the television version feels more well rounded and crafted.  Criterion struck gold once before with Bergman’s dual theatrical/television presentations of Scenes From a Marriage in one excellent DVD set; Fanny and Alexander is a fantastic follow-up.

It’s a bittersweet movie for film lovers everywhere who’ve had to accept that there was not to be another Ingmar Bergman film following it.  Yet he left his fans with a triumphant picture with enough in it to fill hearts and minds for a long time to come.  We couldn’t have asked for a better coda.

Video ****

As often as I’ve complained about how movies from the 80s look on DVD, I have to say, I don’t think I’ve ever been so impressed with such a transfer before.  Criterion’s anamorphic offering of Fanny and Alexander is breathtaking from start to finish.  I’ve never seen an 80s presentation with so much crispness and detail, or with better coloring.  Every image is sharp and clear, every beautiful, subtle shade is bright, vivid and natural looking.  The overall effect of Bergman’s and Nykvist’s compositions is a visual banquet, and they couldn’t have asked for better home video presentation that this DVD…it’s no wonder it earned Bergman’s personal approval.

Audio ***

I was actually surprised to read that this was a mono track…it sounded so much livelier and more dynamic than that!  The mix is good, with clear dialogue and good music from Daniel Bell.  Quiet scenes aren’t marred by background noise, and bigger scenes provide the dynamic range.  The original Swedish soundtrack is a bit clearer and more striking than the English dubbed one, but both are there to suit your preference.

Features ****

Where to start with this amazing five disc set?  The theatrical disc features an excellent commentary track by film scholar and Criterion staple Peter Cowie, who offers plenty of detail and insight into the master’s last motion picture.  A bonus feature film The Making of Fanny and Alexander is a treat; it offers rare insight into Ingmar Bergman at work with a big cast including lots of kids, and showing how magic is lifted from script pages and captured on celluloid.

“Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film” is an hour long 1984 conversation between Bergman and Nils Petter Sundgren, which talks about the finale that was Fanny and Alexander while giving a look to Bergman’s future from that point.  “A Bergman Tapestry” is a look back at the movie with many of the film’s cast and crew members.

Rounding out are 11 video introductions of Ingmar Bergman to some of his best movies as made for Swedish television, plus trailers for many of them, a stills gallery, costume sketches, and video footage of the models used in the design of the Oscar winning sets.  And, of course, no Criterion disc would be complete without a booklet containing new essays on the film.  A terrific array of extras!

Summary:

No studio other than Criterion should bring Ingmar Bergman’s films to DVD, in my opinion.  Their releases of the master’s indelible movies continue to raise the bar with superior transfers and excellent compilations of extras that will please both casual fan and serious cinema student alike.  The five disc set of Fanny and Alexander is as complete a movie going experience as you could hope to have in your home.  Wholeheartedly recommended.

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