The Greatest Christmas Story Ever Told

The Greatest Christmas Story Ever Told January 22, 2023

A former mill in Uppsala, now housing the Upplandsmuseet, and used by Bergman as the exterior of Bishop Edvard’s residence.
Source: Wikimedia
License: Creative Commons

You’d have to come from a family both normal and strange to gather and watch Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982) at Christmastime. Normal, because it explores kinship, childlike wonder, and the simple pleasure of togetherness despite difference in a way that makes me feel saccharine just typing that out. But it’s not at all sweet and light; it’s an odd journey filled with quiet violence, questions of performativity, and hauntings. It’s also, in its TV version (the one worth seeing in my opinion), 312 minutes long. You’ve got to be a little crazy to pass five and some odd hours taking in a Swedish TV movie.

Some, however, are so touched. A few of my friends and me—we first saw it together—watch it with our wives, girlfriends, other loved ones, and even acquaintances around the Holidays. Not every year, but the practice is developing into a tradition. If I recall correctly, each of us declared Bergman’s epic our favorite film as we departed the large lecture theater where we’d first viewed it. I could be wrong and that may not be true for everyone now, but it is still the greatest Christmas movie ever made. I’d stake what little credibility I have on that.

Unfortunately, I am playing catch up at the moment. My silly pride won’t let me break my promise to draft one review a week: it’s a challenge to myself. I missed quite a few and need to make up for my mistake. That means keeping things short, though (I hope) still worthwhile. There’s no way to combine brevity with a five-hour epic I just called “the greatest Christmas movie ever made.” Yet, doofus that I am, I’d like to try, to offer a taste, a snapshot, an implicit argument. One day, maybe I can actually start scaling the mountain; for now, let’s try jogging up the hill behind the school.

Above all by making the young boy from the title our protagonist, Fanny and Alexander concerns itself with the wondrous imaginativeness of children. This ability to fantasize, to see what others don’t whether it’s “there” or not, is a gift. But any seer can easily become Cassandra; there are traumas to confront and clear-eyed assessments shunted aside by adults who smile, “you’re only a child.” The movie thus fluctuates between highs and lows, a fully human emotional spectrum graced with the majesty of being young. Is that not the magic of Christmas, that fuzzy warmth and hope against hope found in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947)?  There’s darkness and pain, but the light endures, somehow, someway (not unlike in the story of Jesus’ nativity—but that’s for another time).

I’m not basing my argument on some fuzzy-wuzzy feeling; don’t worry. The film also opens on Christmas and closes with a christening (essentially a kind of rebirth in Christian tradition, the believer’s Christmas, if you will). Alexander wanders the former, a great bourgeois feast lit with warmth and cluttered with fabrics that seem poised to engulf the characters in their folds. Candles cast soft light as aunts, uncles, cousins, and even the family matriarch’s Jewish friend and lover Isak (Erland Josephson) scurry about. All are welcome and we will miss this hearth when, later, the setting drains of color until nothing but gray stone towers over little Alexander (Bertil Guve). For now, all is well.

But “well” is an average here. Some are barely hanging by a thread while others smile and laugh. These opening moments also introduce us to the huge cast of side characters that will pop in and out throughout the movie, from the buxom servant-girl who dreams of a better station, to the sneering academic who hates himself (but thinks he hates his wife instead), all the way to the fierce matriarch, whose authority holds everything together. In other words, it captures the stress that many feel at that time of year, and indeed the loneliness too. Having to travel, to buy gifts, to paint on a perfect smile—Bergman captures each of these.

This last element, the performances we give in life, keeps the movie together. Alexander hails from a family of actors; we even get to see the whirlwind of stress gathering around a performance of Hamlet his parents have parts in. As the boy sees ghosts and endures hardship, Shakespeare’s tragedy is never far from our minds. But here’s the rub: performance can easily become identity. We are not as slick as we think; in life, when we act for long enough, we grow into the role. Talk about family gatherings and the thoughts that bedraggle us in the early darkness of winter! As Bishop Edvard (a major character later in the film) puts it: he has played his part so well that the mask has bonded to his flesh. One cannot be removed without the other. The ecclesiast’s words are a stark reminder not to take ourselves too seriously. Christmas is about joy in the darkness after all.

I have left out more than you can imagine. Go watch Fanny and Alexander already! Christmas may be past, but it’s still the dead of winter. What’s a few weeks’ difference? Besides, I can’t write that long review if none of you know what I’m talking about.

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