It’s not possible in this limited amount of space to do anything like justice to Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982), one of the filmmaker’s most personal and finely detailed works—and one that was meant to be his last (an idea that didn’t keep Bergman from TV films). The theatrical version runs 188 minutes and actually needs that length just to capture the details of the story, since the details are at the core of the work (Bergman preferred his 312-minute cut). Reduced to a basic plot, the film looks in on a reasonably prosperous Swedish family of 1907—a somewhat forward-thinking family with theater connections and a very open attitude on matters of sex and society. (One of the family members has an openly accepted mistress, while the matriarch of the clan has an old, still romantically inclined boyfriend, who happens to be a Jewish moneylender.) The drama of the story kicks in at about the one-hour mark when lives are changed by the death of the father of the titular children, an event that paves the way for his widow’s ill-advised marriage to a strict, cold, narrow-minded bishop.
Bergman’s story is filled with wonderful characters in a manner that rivals Charles Dickens. It has elements of Shakespeare, as well—along with flashes of autobiography, magic and mysticism. In some ways, it’s one of the director’s oddest films—and that’s saying something for the work of the man who gave us Persona (1966)—yet simultaneously one of his most accessible. Fanny and Alexander may also be Bergman’s most beautifully photographed color film. A genuine masterpiece, but one that must be savored slowly on its own terms, which is surprisingly easy to do.