Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander is a hauntingly beautiful coming of age story and one of Bergman’s best. I don’t have the talent or wherewithal to give this movie a proper write up and it’s almost too daunting to even try. Also, in a sense, I feel like I’ve seen an incomplete version of the film as well. Originally conceived and aired as a four part TV movie in Sweden, the film was released in truncated, yet a still three plus hour version in the US. The US version is the one I have seen and despite its epic length, the film still feels rushed. I could feel those missing pieces and otherwise powerful moments just don’t feel as if they are allowed to breathe in the space of the scenes.
What is there is a beautiful and serene coming of age story of two children growing up in the early twentieth century and dealing with the death of their father. But to say that the film is just about that is to be disingenuous. The film is as much about the eccentric extended family, the Ekdahls, the children’s misadventures involving their grandmother’s Jewish mystic boyfriend, and the bordering on cartoonish evil bishop who marries their mother after their father’s death. The editing for the feature length version never tries too hard to hide its television roots.
The film is episodic both to its fault and credit. Though pared down, we do get a sense of all of the characters that inhabit this meticulously designed little world that Bergman has built. There is a child-like innocence to every incident throughout the film, even at its darkest moments. Ghosts and monsters pervade the edges of many of the scenes but there is also great frivolity and a love of family. It’s an incredibly warm and moving picture but I only wish I had watched the full 312 minute version. It feels so pared down that one of the titular characters, Fanny, the young girl in the picture, barely feels like a presence in the film while Alexander remains a driving force. I have no idea whether that’s still the case with the extended version but there definitely feels like scenes missing regarding that character and several other subplots that feel forgotten or completely disposed of once the film comes to its conclusion.
None of that really matters in the end because the film is such a sumptuous visual feast and the central themes of the film stand strong. The main thematic points Bergman wants to make about religion and family stands up to the haphazard cuts. It’s rare that one can say a three and a half hour film feels too tight and constrained but that is certainly the case here.