Of all of the dozen or so Ingmar Bergman films I have seen, The Silence is the one which I have revisited the most often, but not for the reasons one might expect. I certainly don't consider it his most accomplished work, nor even his most thought-provoking or philosophically rewarding, usually the hallmarks of his finest films. Indeed, some 45 years after its initial release, some of the film's psychoanalytical insight appears more than a little outmoded. Yet despite these apparent shortcomings, it stands out in the director's canon as one of his most intriguing and mysterious, a sinister enigma whose chiaroscuro of contemplation and ferocious intensity renders it as something approaching a masterpiece of psychological horror.
The first lens through which to examine The Silence is seeing it as the final part of a wider cycle of works. The films of the so-called 'Faith Trilogy', also consisting of the earlier Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Winter Light (1962), all consider in different ways their characters' reactions to the apparent silence of God in the face of suffering and doubt. In the first film, a daughter's descent into madness prompts a reconciliation between father and brother, and strengthens the father's hitherto waning religious faith. In the second, a priest suffering even greater doubts appears to find some solace in the presence of his parishioners rather than through God himself.
Silence was the key to the prior two films, but that the third film in the triptych makes direct reference to this is something of a misnomer, since it is marked not by characters entering into a one-way dialogue with their mute God, but by their entire lack of religious engagement – an absent God rather than a silent one. Yet silence manifests itself in different ways here. Firstly, it is an emotional one, the film populated with characters unable to speak their true feelings and desires for each other. Secondly, there is a linguistic silence, brought on by the film's curious setting – displaced from the familiar surrounds of rural Sweden, Bergman and his characters inhabit an city in an unnamed country with an unfamiliar tongue.
Bergman, at this time heavily influenced by the minimalist economy of chamber music, had begun in his films to pare down his own artform to become something akin to a 'chamber film'; both Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light featured only four central characters apiece, and focused on the interplay between their personalities and their unspoken repressed feelings. The Silence sees this stripped back to three – two sisters Anna and Ester, and Anna's young son Jonas – but with a clear implication to a fourth, the sisters' dead father. From the outset, the two women quarrel, and use the absent father as a weapon against each other, but as we shall see elsewhere in the film the exact nature of their relationships to him are never made abundantly clear.