My parents took me to see Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander when it was released in the United States in 1983, and it warped me forever. I don’t recall what month we went to see it, but I was either about to turn 13, or had just turned 13. I do remember that we saw it at the Nickelodeon Cinema, just off Commonwealth Avenue, located in between buildings belonging to Boston University. That movie theater is long gone, as are many other landmarks of my Boston youth, but memories from those years linger and are reactivated often. Especially when I revisit a movie or book from long ago. The Siskel Film Center’s celebration of Bergman has provided a great opportunity to plunge into my own past.
I didn’t recall much of the plot of Fanny and Alexander when I rewatched it recently but a sense-memory of seeing something I shouldn’t have seen, or was maybe too young to see, has followed me around ever since my trip to the Nickelodeon 35 years ago. I only remember one scene. It’s when the young hero of the film, Alexander, is taken to visit an androgynous young man named Ismael. Ismael is said to be dangerous and possibly clairvoyant and lives in a locked room in his family’s junk shop. Alexander and Ismael have one intense interaction that is simultaneously erotic, metaphysical, and horrific. Whether Ismael has the magical powers that he claims or not, Alexander believes it, and seeing that belief scared the hell out of me. It made me realize that there was a dark world out there that I might never understand.
Watching Fanny and Alexander as a middle-aged man in 2018, after seeing about a dozen of the films Bergman made before it, has lent it a gravity and richness I wouldn’t have been able to grasp as a teenage boy. I didn’t even remember, for instance, that Ismael and his family were Jewish like me. Ismael’s uncle Isak, a close friend of Alexander’s grandmother, is very distinctly a minority and other in the early 20th-century Swedish society depicted in the film. Isak’s shop is a world of dusty treasures and mystical philosophy, a place where Alexander can get lost in his imagination. I have to believe that the sequence in Isak’s home which has haunted me all these years must at least partially derive its power from my sense of identification or kinship. I’ve rarely had emotional reactions to Jewish themes in art, but something about Isak’s world feels very close to home.
One of the overarching themes I’ve noticed in the Bergman films I’ve revisited or seen for the first time over the past couple months is a child’s exposure to the adult world before he is able to process it. There are dozens of instances of little boys and girls stumbling upon grown-ups doing seemingly incomprehensible things. The entirety of The Silence (1963), for instance, is a prolonged and unasked-for plunge into debauchery, sickness, and depression seemingly performed for the benefit of the protagonist, a little blond boy who has no idea much of the time what he’s looking at. There’s a callback to The Silence in Fanny and Alexander when Alexander wanders out of a bedroom in Isak’s house and, unable to find a chamber pot or bathroom, urinates on the carpet in the corner of the living room. Bergman’s reuse of the image of a little boy peeing in an inappropriate place 20 years later speaks to how formative childhood experiences can stay with us for decades, and perhaps our entire lives.
What Bergman continues to remind me of, as I keep going through his filmography this year, is how the world of our childhood continues resurfacing at odd moments as we age. The scene between Ismael and Alexander that has haunted me most of my life takes place toward the end of Fanny and Alexander. It is certainly one of the most pivotal moments in the entire story, but in my mind’s eye all I see is that young boy and that strange androgynous young man, their faces close together, talking about mysteries beyond anyone’s understanding.