Autumn Sonata, 1978

Autumn Sonata is a provocative, moving, and intensely honest film about the complexity of familial relationships. Eva (Liv Ullman), a timid and reserved wife of a country parson, invites her mother, Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman), to stay with her after a seven year separation. Charlotte is a concert pianist, whose career has dictated prolonged separations from her family. Having recently experienced the death of her husband, Charlotte is eager to rekindle her relationship with her daughter. However, their congenial reunion is short-lived, as Eva begins to confront her mother’s alienated affection.

If the exquisite craftsmanship of the great Ingmar Bergman is insufficient reason to watch this film, then consider the tour-de-force performances of Liv Ullman and the legendary Ingrid Bergman. Note the understated power of a piano scene where the inhibited Eva, longing for approbation, plays a Chopin prelude (I can see at least ten different expressions on Ullman’s face as she hits some clinkers during the piece, and equally as many on Bergman’s face as she tries not to betray the idea that she realizes how badly her daughter is playing). Then, as Charlotte takes her confident place in front of the piano, a revelation comes over Eva’s countenance, as she finds the void of her mother’s absence in the animated keys of the piano.

It is impossible to describe the tenuous, emotionally charged scene that is at the heart of this film. It is an exploration of guilt, regret, and pain. To trivialize this eviscerating exchange as “wordy” (as I have seen in some misguided reviews) is unfair. It is a verbal catharsis – the inevitable release of harbored frustration and anger – punctuated with the hesitance of a daughter who deeply loves her mother, but sometimes cannot accept her faults. The scene, and indeed the film itself, speaks volumes about the need for acceptance and connection.

Bergman, as in Cries and Whispers, uses thematic colors that suffuse the film. In Autumn Sonata, the color palette is appropriately fall: pale greens, pumpkin orange, muted yellows, and earth tones. Note the colors of the parsonage, the wardrobe, and the season in which the film takes place. The theme is especially suited to the story of a mother in the twilight of her career …and life (Ms. Bergman was battling cancer when the film was made), seeking to find reconciliation and closure. It also creates an atmosphere that is warm and inviting, a woman coming home at the end of her journey. It is, however, a journey that has only begun.

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