Ingmar Bergman infuses Winter Light with a sense of aloneness akin to the unforgiving winter scenery in the film. Grotesque imagery mingles with religious metaphors and uncomfortable close-ups. Winter Light provides an almost voyeuristic window onto its characters’ spiritual wounds, but there are also faint glimmers of hope.
Tomas Ericsson (Gunner Bjornstrand) is a Lutheran pastor who is first seen administering the Eucharist to his few congregants. Filled with hatred for himself, others, and God, Tomas alienates his flock as well as the viewer. He has not only suffered loss and trauma during the Spanish Civil War but also has lost his wife. Tomas ministers to Jonas (Max Von Sydow), a fisherman and boatmaker whose placid nature is radically disturbed by an obsession with the presence of evil in the world. As a result of his obsession, Jonas becomes virtually catatonic.
Tomas reveals to Jonas that he has renounced God. Later, he faces the image of the crucifix and proclaims himself free, but the declaration is unconvincing.
Tomas becomes more and more estranged from his community and his faith. Karin (Gunnel Lindblom), wife of Jonas, deals with her own bereavement by nurturing her family and her children, rejecting the religion that has failed her. The church sexton, crippled for life, survives his suffering with more wisdom than the learned Tomas by questioning his faith and applying those lessons to his own life. Marta (Ingrid Thulin), Tomas’ agnostic mistress, is unveiled as needing to suffer at the hands of her lover.
In the final scenes, Marta prays as Tomas begins the service with only Marta in attendance, but it is her love that ministers to him. The film ends as it begins with Tomas presiding over a religious service, leaving the impression of an unchanging cycle of empty religious ritual.
Bergman’s cinematography is bleak: the church scenes echo the Swedish landscape, providing no warmth or sense of community. Though they struggle with spiritual injuries, many characters in the film cling to a semblance of faith. But the presence of God is not felt in Winter Light. There is no background score to uplift, no landscape to enlighten. Despite the rare glimpses of hope, one is left with the harsh reality of the elements, giving the impression that this, along with hollow rituals, is all that there is.
—Michelle R. King