Fanny & Alexander

Of the handful of "last" films Ingmar Bergman has made in the past 25 years or so, Fanny and Alexander possesses the greatest sense of finality--a lush and grandiloquent farewell that heaps all of the director's favorite obsessions into a quasi-autobiographical fable of incandescent childhood. Hardcore Bergman-philes balked at the master's seeming descent into sentimentality when the movie opened in 1982. How could the Swedish maestro of rigorous asceticism (and misanthropic brooding) think of signing off on a note of nostalgic excess? Had he finally sold out? Or had old age caught up to him?

The Criterion Colletion's new DVD set--which features the original five-hour TV version plus a mountain of extras--isn't likely to change anyone's mind about the film. But naysayers may find themselves reassessing Bergman's Proustian indulgences for the better. Most obviously, the extended TV version is a darker, more sinister film than the three-hour theatrical cut (which is also included, restored with audio commentary). The characters and story are the same, only less loveable and accessible. The sprawling Ekdahl clan now seems incorrigibly egotistical--a bunch of speechifying, psychologically unstable layabouts sinking under the weight of too much old money. Their opulent Uppsala mansion always had an FAO Schwartz gleam to it, but now the corners seem dustier, almost tinged with death. And twelve-year-old protagonist (and Bergman surrogate) Alexander is not so much a passive observer as he is a behind-the-scenes trouble maker armed with a highly judgmental gaze.

Beginning with a Christmas banquet and ending with a baptism celebration, Fanny and Alexander is primarily concerned with birth, or rather re-birth. Characters metamorphosize both spiritually and physically, and so does the movie. After their father passes away, Alexander (Bertil Guve) and younger sister Fanny (Pernilla Alwin) move in with the town bishop (Jan Malmsjo), a stern taskmaster who has successfully wooed and married their mother (Ewa Froling). Bergman shifts from the warm reds and greens of the Ekdahl cocoon to the cold whites and greys of the bishop's palace. The mood, once celebratory and familial, now becomes harsh and introspective. Without a doubt the most Bergmanesque section of the movie, the scenes in the bishop's palace are also the movie's most compelling not only because they harness the director's well-documented hatred for his own father (also a man of the cloth), but because the bishop himself is such an ambiguous and self-contradicting character--a force of unforgiving hostility who speaks of nothing but mankind's capacity to forgive.

Bergman's TV and theatrical versions diverge to the greatest extent in the movie's final section, after Fanny and Alexander are spirited away from the bishop's palace by Ekdahl family friend Isak Jacobi (the incomparable Erland Josephson). In a scene absent from the theatrical cut, Isak recounts a quasi-Biblical bedtime story to Alexander, part of which Bergman visualizes as a highly-stylized procession of self-flagellating pilgrims. Another absent scene shows the bishop negotiating for the children's release with two elder members of the Ekdahl clan whose buffoonish egos only manage to bore the bishop and bungle their case.

This five-disc set also contains Bergman's feature-length documentary The Making of Fanny and Alexander--a compulsively watchable on-set diary of the movie's seven-month shoot that proves that Bergman wasn't always the irritable megalomaniac the press has made him out to be. In fact, the biggest re-birth in Fanny and Alexander may be Bergman's own. Having returned to Sweden after fleeing the country in 1976 on suspicion of tax evasion, the director was clearly back in his element, surrounding himself with his old theatrical crew (including stage veteran Gunn Wallgren as the Ekdahl family matriarch) and granting all sorts of journalistic access to his usually tight-lipped productions.

Fanny and Alexander may be Bergman's definitive "final" film (as opposed to his final "final" film, Saraband, which is scheduled for release in 2005), but it is also an ideal starting point for Bergman neophytes, and especially for younger viewers. All of the master's thematic hobby horses are present: Christianity, divorce, magic realism, grim reapers, bourgeois angst, primal screams, and above all the theater. For the beginner, nothing in Bergman's canon is as reachable yet comprehensive. For the unconvinced Bergman veteran, the movie deserves a revisit, if only to discover a deeper, less hospitable film than you might remember.

Fanny & Alexander is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection as a special edition five-disc boxed set. This set includes the theatrical version (188 minutes), the television version (312 minutes), and a feature-length documentary, The Making of Fanny and Alexander (110 minutes). These features are presented in new high-definition digital transfers. Special features: optional English-dubbed soundtrack on the theatrical version; Ingmar Bergman’s feature-length documentary The Making of Fanny and Alexander; Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film, a one-hour conversation between Bergman and Nils Petter Sundgren made for Swedish television in 1984; audio commentary on the theatrical version by film scholar Peter Cowie; A Bergman Tapestry, a new documentary featuring exclusive interviews with cast and crew; rare introductions by Bergman to eleven of his films; a selection of Bergman theatrical trailers; costume sketches and video footage of the models for the film’s sets; a stills gallery; and a 36-page booklet featuring new essays by documentarian and film historian Stig Bjorkman, novelist Rick Moody, and film scholar Paul Arthur. Suggested retail price: $59.95. The theatrical version of Fanny & Alexander is available separately, SRP $29.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.

Photos courtesy of The Criterion Collection.