Cries and Whispers is a powerful, richly textured exploration of the human soul. The story is set on a remote country house, stripped from the distractions of the outside world (the only “guest” is an attending physician). Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is a terminally ill woman who is cared for by her two sisters: Karin (Ingrid Thulin), repressed and domineering, and Maria (Liv Ullman), sensual and indecisive. However, her only source of comfort is the devoted, nurturing maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan). As with other Bergman films, most notably Autumn Sonata, the film is a heartbreaking portrait of pain and regret, of things left unsaid and undone, until it is too late. Agnes’s slow, agonizing death is shattering, especially as she futilely struggles to reconcile the sisters, as her languid, convulsive frame strains each breath. Unable to reunite her sisters, her tortured soul can only grieve in incoherent gasps. Similar to Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, death confers a profound revelation whose meaning escapes the survivors. Cries and Whispers is a beautifully devastating story of isolation, communication, love, and death.
Ingmar Bergman resisted using color as a novelty. His use of color in the film is precise and deliberate. Contrast the pale, muted landscape to the rich, deep colors inside the house. The color red, featured prominently in the film (as in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Red) is used to create a multifaceted visual theme. The effect is one of immersion: a soul foundering in the corporal life blood, a stifling, forced intimacy arising from absence and isolation, and a body slowly consumed by illness. Cries and Whispers is a remarkable film of intoxicating beauty and extraordinary depth, a sublime work of art from a true master.
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