In the opening shot of "Fanny and Alexander" (1982), the curtain of a puppet theater pulls back to reveal ten year old Alexander Ekdahl (Bertil Guve) gazing at the tiny players and idly placing a doll queen at center stage. It's a none-too subtle précis for the film that is to follow. It is a movie set partly in the world of fantasy, and the fantasy will be written in large part by its young protagonist.
Alexander has certainly been born into the proper world to host a flight of fancies. Not only does his family run a local theater where he is often witness to the rehearsals, but they are apparently so wealthy (from a theater?) and their home so vast (and filled with life-like statues and other goodies) that it requires a virtual army of servants simply to manage their detritus. The servants make wonderful playmates for Alexander, as well as for certain of the rammier adults who go about their nasty adult business just out of the prying eyes of children (the film is not literally told from Alexander's point of view in every shot, though one gets the impression that he has a fair idea of what's going on).
Alexander is a serious-minded boy which prepares in some small degree for the parts of the story he cannot write. In the middle of a rehearsal his father suffers a stroke and dies. His mother Emilie (Ewa Froling) then channels the movie widows of Shelley Winters past and zeroes in on the worst possible second marriage candidate she can find, Bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo), as nasty as any of the various Verguri that Bergman concocted throughout his career. He's so manifestly loutish that it's tempting to lose sympathy for Emilie's patently moronic decision (akin to the B-horror-movie character who hears a sound in the woods and decides it would be a good idea to go check it out) but keep in mind that our perception is filtered through Alexander's who is not quite ready to see the good in a potential replacement father. Then again, Alexander's may be the surest vision of all.
After the re-marriage, Alexander and his sister Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) are forced to leave their lavish Shangri-La for the Spartan ogre-like demesnes of the Bishop where they are not permitted even to take a single toy with them. Alexander, being a stubborn fellow (he is, in many ways, a stand-in for Bergman, whose father was a stern clergyman), sneaks in not only a teddy bear but, in the ultimate threat to his authoritarian step-father, his own imagination, a weapon he wields with remarkable proficiency. No matter how much Uncle Edvard literally tries to beat it out of him, Alexander will not relinquish his creative powers to Church or State. Perhaps it is Alexander's doing when the film takes a decidedly magical turn as an old family friend Mr. Jacobi (Bergman stalwart Erland Josephson) shows up to whisk the children away in an escape straight out of a fairy tale. Secreted in the Jacobi home, Alexander suddenly finds himself in the presence of adults who actually encourage his imagination rather than try to browbeat him into conformity. And the net result is a win for the good guys, and a loss for the baddies.
I have only seen the "short" theatrical version of "Fanny and Alexander" which clocks it at a mere 188 minutes compared to the 321 minute mini-series aired in four episodes on television. Both are available in this fully-loaded set from Criterion. According to all the reviews I have read, Bergman cut many of the fantastical elements for the theatrical cut which might explain the film's abrupt tonal shifts. Then again, this may be precisely what the director of "Persona" (1966) intended.
For those accustomed to Bergman's brooding tales filled with protagonists crying out to an absent god, "Fanny and Alexander" will be a surprisingly playful extravagance, though it can hardly be described as happy-go-lucky. It is also one of his most elaborately staged films. He and the great cinematographer Sven Nykvist coordinate a sprawling cast, many of whom appear together in long dynamic shots requiring the kind of choreography normally associated with classic Hollywood musicals. There are four distinct realms in this fairy tale (they are even marked separately in the credits listed in the insert booklet): The Ekdahl residence, The Bishop's Palace, The Theater, and Mr. Jacobi's House) and each has its own vibrant life and distinct style, each also representing a different step on Alexander's journey to the brink of adolescence.
The film is both intimate and epic and seeks to be a grand summary statement of life while also sticking to the details of one particular tale. It is alternately sweet, dark, funny, and scary, and convincing in every mode. In "Fanny and Alexander," the stage is all the world.
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The 1080p transfer of the theatrical version is an impressive one with rich colors across the spectrum from vivid reds to rich, deep blacks. Image quality is very sharp throughout and really gets shown off in the numerous scenes of the meticulously decorated Ekdahl home. Sunlit scenes are perfectly warm and luminous. This is a top line transfer. I only sampled the television version briefly and I did not notice any difference in quality from the theatrical version.
The linear PCM Mono track for the theatrical version is free of any noticeable flaws and preserves both the music and dialogue quite well. It's not a particularly dynamic audio mix but what we have is crystal clear. Optional English subtitles support the Swedish audio.
The extras have been imported from Criterion's previous SD release. The five-disc SD set has been consolidated into a "mere" three discs.
Disc One includes the 321 minute television version of the film which can be played in its entirety or by each of the four episodes.
Disc Two includes the 188 minute theatrical cut along with a feature-length commentary by Criterion's go-to Bergman guy, Peter Cowie. It was originally recorded in 2004. The disc also has a Trailer.
Disc Three is a Bonus Disc with the rest of the extras. The unquestioned jewel of the collection is "The Making of ‘Fanny and Alexander'" (110 min.) a film which has justifiably received praise in its own right. Though limited to on-set footage, this is a "making of" feature that transcends its genre, capturing the minutiae and intimacy of a director at work to a degree I have never seen before. Particularly striking is the way that Bergman works with his child actors, as patient as a doting uncle most of the time but willing correct them in no uncertain terms when needed. His quiet and respectful collaboration with Sven Nykvist is also quite telling. This is a film that merits its own release; having it as an "extra" is a true pleasure.
"A Bergman Tapestry" (39 min.) is a fairly mundane collection of interviews with cast and crew from the film, reminiscing about their work on the legendary film.
"Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film" (1984, 59 min.) is a rather illuminating interview with Bergman by critic Nils Petter Sundgren. Bergman intended "Fanny and Alexander" as his swansong, and made a very public show of his retirement. Fortunately his retirement stuck about as well as Stephen King's alleged retirement about twenty novels ago, and he continued to work until 2003, a few years before his death.
The Bonus Disc also includes a Stills Gallery, a Costume Gallery and a Gallery of Set Models.
The 32-page insert booklet offers essays by critic Stig Bjorkman, novelist Rick Moody, and the late, great critic Paul Arthur.
"Fanny and Alexander" is one of Bergman's finest achievements and though it turned out not to be his final film, it certainly qualifies as a splendid career summary. Though dismissed by some in its day as Bergman's stab at a crowd pleaser (it committed the great sin of winning four Oscars) it has largely been appreciated as a masterpiece. The highest praise has always been reserved for the full-length television version which I have not yet seen, but look forward to digging into in the near future. The theatrical version is strong enough on its own merits though the excision of some of the fantasy elements does, I suspect, account for a few easily forgivable rough transitions.
The inclusion of "The Making of ‘Fanny and Alexander'" and of both cuts of the film is reason enough to consider this one of the most loaded sets Criterion has ever released. This Blu-ray update of the previous version (which I do not own for comparison) does not include any new material, but should make any Bergman fans happy. The Blu-ray has been released at the same retail price ($59.95) as the original SD 5-disc set, so this is the obvious choice for first-time buyers of the film.