If the venerating coverage surrounding Ingmar Bergman’s death in July helped at all to pull the Swedish master back into favor, his sumptuous, haunting, and unusually tender 1982 magnum opus—presented for the first time theatrically in its original five-hour-plus television cut—should play to full houses as the first must-see of 2008. Intended by Bergman as his autumnal farewell to cinema, the thematic and practiced summation of an already canonized career, Fanny and Alexander seems equally vital as a nakedly psychological “in” to his earliest artistic impulses; nothing else in his oeuvre addresses so directly his childhood escapes into fantasy as the by-product of a harsh Lutheran upbringing. As for Bergman’s signature broodiness, we see here his lightest touch since 1955’s sex farce Smiles of a Summer Night.
As witness to death, birth, love, lust, skulking ghosts, his own fears and innocence lost, plus the forgivably unsubtle symbolism that weaves them all together into a turn-of-the-last-century tapestry, sailor-suited rug rat Alexander (Bertil Guve) serves as our guide into the Ekdahl family mansion and the theater-community hedonists who reside within. Even when expanded by two hours from the U.S. theatrical version, the film’s dramatic arcs and anchoring moments—the passing of Alexander’s father, which triggers his mother’s hypnotized leap into marriage with a terrifyingly oppressive bishop; one uncle’s senseless cruelty to his German wife, and the other’s casual joy over knocking up his nursemaid mistress—remain very much the same.
But now the Ekdahls’ frame-filling luxuries are even fuller, their decadence dazzlingly more decadent—the first act’s extended Christmas Day pageant and dinner-time festivities become as much about their consumption as ours. Everything gets an upgrade, from Marik Vos’s chic costume design and Anna Asp’s sensory-overloading art direction to cinematography legend Sven Nykvist’s lush dollies and measured zooms. (All three won Oscars for their work.) But as the words on Alexander’s puppet proscenium dictate in the opening shot, “Ei Blot Til Lyst” (“Not for pleasure alone”): The longer running time fleshes out motives and sheds light on previously unnoticed performances. Crucial speeches get vocalized, phantoms in the attic literally materialize, and Alexander’s imagination is finally set free during a mythic final-act yarn spun by his bedside. Go on, indulge yourself.