What do we need to procure a powerful imagination? A childhood steeped in traumatic events, emotionally supportive family members, being exposed to various quirky people, enriching early experiences, long hours of solitude…. Ingmar Bergman in Fanny and Alexander, his ode to the origins of imagination, suggests that all of the above is true. Bergman’s semi-autobiographical farewell gift to cinema is a reflection on what nourished his imagination to create decades of outstanding cinematic work.
The first half of Fanny and Alexander is a series of anecdotes told from the perspective of Alexander (Bertil Guve) and his sister Fanny (Pernilla Allwin), and depicts a childhood that is well protected and crowded with family on the one hand, and is also detached and chaotic on the other. Family routines are woven with religious themes; a wealthy, almost decadent upbringing is balanced with equal treatment of the staff; the chaos of a night of celebration is spotted with unexpected liaisons. Amidst all the joy and chaos Alexander hides under sheets and tables, playing make-believe games and seeing statues come alive in what we can only assume to be the fertile soil of a safe environment from which to dream.
The ideal of a childhood responsible for fuelling Alexander’s imagination is one filled with art. The rich colors and images of Alexander’s home and family life come from paintings, antiques and sculptures, furniture, rugs and tapestries. The scenes featuring various eccentric members of the family and the Christmas dinner they share are filmed in glorious wide angles as if desperate to encompass as much of the beauty and warmth as possible, still more goodness spilling out of the edges of the screen.
Fanny and Alexander’s father, Oscar (Allan Edwall), manages a theatre and both Oscar and their mother Emilie (Ewa Froling) act in the family’s stage plays. Alexander’s proximity to the most dramatic of arts of its time is another source from which he dreams. But the lifeline to his imagination is briskly cut off when Alexander witnesses his father’s quick decline and death in terror.
This event marks Bergman’s transition to the next half of the film. Oscar’s reappearing ghost is not enough to comfort Fanny and Alexander as they dread moving into the home of their mother’s new husband, Bishop Edvard Vergerus’s (Jan Malmsjo). Vergerus’s home is barren, grey, cold and his family’s manner is stoic and void of any affection and love. Vergerus’ children from his previous wife drowned, a bad omen that influences Alexander’s darkening tales of isolation and death.
It is interesting that Vergerus’s objection to Alexander’s imagination increases as Alexander embellishes his tales with horror elements. And the harsher Vergerus’s punishments get the more Alexander’s magical thinking inspires the supernatural elements in the film. The innocent wonder of the moving statue and the friendly ghost of Oscar in the first half ripens into the kind of magic that influences the events in Alexander’s life, blurring the line between reality and fantasy.
Following Fanny and Alexander’s rescue from Vergerus’s house, Alexander re-enters a life of art and imagination, but this time that life and the characters that inhabit it school Alexander in the art of using his imagination. In conversation with a puppet that claims to be God, Alexander is told, “different realities surround us existing alongside each other.” Later, Ismael (Stina Ekblad), another strange character living in the house that hosts and protects Alexander and Fanny from their stepfather, tells Alexander that there are no boundaries between people, even people’s minds. “People flow seamlessly into each other.” This gives Alexander the permission to imagine and actualize Vergerus’s horrific death. With the power of his imagination he is not only freed from his stepfather but also from the clutches of a stale and deprived life where imagination is forbidden.
Alexander wants to punish God, if God does indeed exist. The question of the existence of God is a recurrent dilemma for Bergman and Fanny and Alexander elusively but tenderly reveals Bergman’s spiritual evolution, that there are no boundaries between things, and therefore all is possible, all is God. The film is told from the perspectives of generations of people, men and women, rich and poor, ghosts good and evil, angels and monsters. Fanny and Alexander stands as a fairy tale of sorts, and yet Alexander’s childhood feels starkly real, his imagination reflective of a child’s candid reality. We’re gifted with a hypnotic epic picture from Bergman, at once captivating and freeing.