1.66:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 2.0
The Criterion Collection, $59.95
Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman reached the apex of his rich and prolific career with Fanny & Alexander, one of the director’s most sumptuous and beloved creations. To make the picture, the author of some of cinema’s most intimate meditations on existential struggle tapped his own childhood memories to create a warm, distinctly fanciful vision of family, seen through the eyes of children.
We are introduced to the Ekdahl family in 1907, as they prepare for a grand celebration following the performance of the family-owned theater company’s Christmas play. Young Alexander (Bertil Guve) amuses himself by prowling about the plush rooms of his family home as his grandmother’s servants prepare for the Yuletide gathering. During the lengthy Christmas celebration, numerous members of the Ekdahl family are introduced as they consume an incredible feast and partake in festive song and dance.
Shortly thereafter, Alexander’s father, Oscar (Allan Edwall), dies suddenly. The family mourns his passing, and brokenhearted widow Emilie (Ewa Froling) seeks solace in the arms of provincial bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo), who eventually persuades her to marry him. Upon hearing the news, Alexander is haunted by the ghost of his father, and he reluctantly leaves the family home with his mother and sister, Fanny (Pernilla Allwin), to begin a new life in the bishop’s home. The children soon become virtual prisoners in the bishop’s household, where religious fervor and a Spartan lifestyle are enforced. As the winter passes into spring and summer, Emilie realizes she must find a way out of the marriage.
Fanny & Alexander was shot by legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist, ASC (Cries and Whispers, The Silence, Autumn Sonata), who collaborated with Bergman for nearly 25 years. Renowned for his expert use and manipulation of natural light, Nykvist created some of his most memorable images for Fanny & Alexander. He and Bergman agreed that the camerawork should be mobile but as unobtrusive as possible in order to suggest the constant curiosity of the children at the center of the story. From meticulously detailed, ornate interiors to snow-covered pastoral exteriors, the images are indelibly sharp and saturated. Nykvist’s outstanding visuals were honored with an Academy Award, a BSC Award and a BAFTA Award. (He was also the recipient of the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996.)
The Criterion Collection recently released an exceptional DVD presentation of Fanny & Alexander. Included in the five-disc package are the 188-minute version of the film that was theatrically released and, in a first for the U.S. home-video market, the 312-minute version that was broadcast on Swedish television. Though the theatrical version is a certainly an accomplished work, the longer version expands on numerous themes and tropes in the film, creating a more satisfying experience. The widescreen-enhanced picture transfers of both versions are virtually identical in quality and faithfully represent Nykvist’s work. Reds are deep and saturated and do not exhibit any chroma noise, and several levels of candlelight are clearly visible in the shadowy halls of the Ekdahl home. The monaural audio is clear and full-bodied in both the original Swedish track and a dubbed English track.
Disc one of the set presents the 188-minute cut, the theatrical trailer and an excellent, feature-length audio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie. In a consistently interesting and articulate manner, Cowie offers historical information, production anecdotes and theoretical observations. Discs two and three contain the four episodes that comprise the 312-minute Swedish-television version of the film, as well as a new, 39-minute documentary, A Bergman Tapestry, containing interviews with the principal actors and crew. Also included is a colorful booklet featuring brief but interesting essays by critic/filmmaker Stig Bjorkman, academic Paul Arthur and novelist Rick Moody.
Disc four presents Bergman’s excellent feature-length documentary The Making of Fanny & Alexander (1983). This fascinating look at the creative process offers an intimate glimpse of Bergman and his working relationships with his collaborators. Extensive sequences of Nykvist and Bergman blocking and finding precise shots is some of the best footage available that displays the intricate relationship between director and cinematographer. Also included is a provocative, 60-minute video interview with Bergman and Nils Petter Sundergren, Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film (1984). Rounding out disc four are a gallery of production stills and costume sketches, and a slick segment in which Anna Asp’s elaborate models for the film’s sets are presented with clips that show the finished sets. In disc five, Bergman provides lengthy introductions for 11 of his pictures; these insightful interviews were taped for Swedish television in 2003. In many cases, the original theatrical trailers for the films he discusses are also included.
This handsomely mounted presentation of Bergman’s crown jewel offers an exhaustive archive of supplements and ephemera, and with it, Criterion has beautifully preserved for home-video audiences this incandescent tapestry of family life and the eternal struggle between art and authority. This boxed set is a benchmark for DVD presentations of cinematic masterpieces.