In my household, where an atheist and an agnostic have agreed to disagree on all matters regarding the Nativity, the Christmas movie of choice is Fanny and Alexander, Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece about the loss and (tenuous) reclamation of faith. Not the truncated U.S. theatrical version either, but the original four-episode five-hour-plus version Bergman made for Swedish television back in 1982 (which starts a brief run today at the IFC Center) because what else are an atheist and an agnostic to do all day as they tipple?
Fanny and Alexander opens, amid a typically pitiless Scandinavian winter, on the Christmas Eve celebrations of the fabulously wealthy Ekdahls. The titular brother and sister, the children of a theater director and his lead actress, live with their extended family in a baroque mansion populated by disgruntled servants, soused, flatulent uncles, and a sexy, Strindberg-denouncing materfamilias. It is paradise. (The house and its occupying eccentrics were an obvious model for the mis-en-scene of The Royal Tenenbaums.) But then our protagonists’ father dies of a heart attack, and during his funeral procession Alexander rejects God, muttering his own adolescent version of non serviam (“crap, ass, piss, cock, butt, pussy”).
His Gertrude-of-a-mother hastily remarries the Calvinist Bishop (a ghastly Jan Malmsjö) who comforts her, and at the close of the second episode, the children reluctantly follow mom and move into the exarch’s austere digs. The Bishop, inspired by Bergman’s own father, makes it a special project to beat the sin out of his new stepson, who insists on defying the Word at every opportunity. The children are ultimately rescued from this Christian nightmare by their grandmother’s lover, Isak, a Jewish antiques dealer played by Bergman perennial Erland Josephson. Isak teaches Alexander about the kinder, gentler, and frankly more worldly aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and because of this Fanny and Alexander scans as, among other things, a testament to the power of redemption. But the film’s unexpected final scene–without giving too much away, it involves a ghost–suggests that the Supreme Being, if He does exist, has a devilish sense of humor. Death can free us, for a time, from our tormentors, but for believers there will always be a rendez-vous in the afterlife.–Benjamin Strong