Ingmar Bergman’s dark vision of the human condition has focused on individuals incapable of real inter-personal communications except on the most primitive level. Crying for help in a world they can neither cope with nor comprehend, his characters confront a silent universe inhabited by a God whose attitude is at best uncaring, at worst malignant. How the individual adjusts to his plight remains Bergman’s central concern, and in Cries and Whispers he provides a bravado portrait of four women in this barren emotional landscape.
Two sisters (Ingrid Thulin and Liv Ullmann) return to their family home to await the death of a third (Harriet Andersson), a spinster long cared for by a peasant housekeeper (Kari Sylwan). The women represent varying degrees of alienation, ranging from Thulin’s suicidal despair to Sylwan’s benign acceptance of God’s will.
The atmosphere of imminent death cues memories of past events which occurred in the house. Andersson recalls a lonely childhood in which she failed to make contact with her mother, the housekeeper remembers the death of her young daughter, Ullmann is reminded of an extra-marital affair which caused her husband to attempt suicide, and, in the film’s most bizarre sequence, Thulin relives the night she mutilated her vagina with broken glass to avoid her dreaded conjugal duties.
Bergman’s lean style, his use of lingering close-ups, fades to red and a soundtrack echoing with the ticking of clocks, the rustle of dresses and the hushed cries of the lost gives pic a hypnotic impact.