© Cinematograph AB/Swedish Film Institute

Ingmar Bergman’s final film opens with an unshakable prologue: a young boy, around ten, charges through his family’s empty mansion in Uppsala, Sweden in the early 1900s. As the clock strikes three, Alexander Ekdahl (Bertil Guve) spies two figures from his hiding-place under a table: the first is a gleaming white statue animated by Alexander’s lustful gaze, immediately followed by the prototypical scythe-dragging grim reaper. So much of childhood’s liminality is contained in these first few images; space haunted just by virtue of being empty, the secret animation of unobserved objects, an overflowing suggestibility. As much as the images evoke the pre-rational universe of childhood, the world is already separating into interdependent dualities: budding sexuality, with death immediately on its heels.

Fanny and Alexander is in many ways the culmination of a long career spent wrestling with such metaphysical concerns. The 1983 theatrical release marked Bergman’s last cinematic work as director, with an episodic 312-minute television cut released the following year. Compared with the constrained, masterly chamber dramas which dominated Bergman’s earlier output, Fanny and Alexander is a cornucopia. Set over three years and with a cast of dozens of deftly drawn characters, the film is overflowing, generously humane and discursive, combining novelistic scope with theatrical intensity, run through with biblical allegory and Shakespearean allusion.

Though the form breaks some new ground, it offers a direct and accessible channel for Bergman’s perennial preoccupations: death, God, art, identity, family, sexuality, the relations between men and women. What unites the film’s many strands is the question of what higher purposes our manipulation of the symbolic—fantasy, imagination and untruth—plays in our lives. Composing the film’s dramatic spine is the conflict between the theatrical family Ekdahls’ young fantasist and the rigid dogma of his step-father, the bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malsjo), in whose firmament Alexander’s fabrications are not play but willful blasphemy.

Originally written for Bergman’s long-time collaborator Max von Sydow, Edvard is one of Bergman’s few outright villains and a truly terrifying sort of hypocrite, whose particular brand of evil is not just stubborn sanctimony but ignorance of his own human ridiculousness. What makes Edvard most disturbing is the deep investment he takes in Alexander; far worse than cold dismissal of the boy’s childishness, his involvement is deeply personal and uncomfortably intimate. He manhandles Alexander with constant prods and caresses, always hovering in an uncomfortable space between violence and love.

When Alexander invents a story in which the bishop causes the death of his first wife and children—an emotional truth if not a factual one—Edvard decides to instill in Alexander “a love of truth,” in a lengthy scene whose emotional violence taints everything that comes before it. Evoking the nauseating quality of childhood injustice under an authority which accepts no petition, Edvard breaks Alexander’s will over and over through several bouts of whipping, first forcing him to recant his lies, then to apologize, and finally to kiss his hand. In the scene’s most dreadful detail, as Edvard’s sister reaches over and holds Alexander’s head down, we push in on her thimbled finger resting against his neck. That arbitrary sensation in its specificity, we imagine, is to be imprinted in Alexander’s sense memory for good, and it’s here—in the soft impressionable state of childhood when one is so easily branded for life—that the film arguably finds its most urgent spiritual stakes.

For Bergman, the aggregation of human suffering (memorably rendered in Isak’s parable as a great cloud collecting overhead) has real and terrible power: weak-willed, self-loathing Carl questions just how he has “become second-rate,” Alexander’s anger and hatred manifests in fiery murder, Edvard’s ghost knocks the boy to the floor and tells him he’ll never escape what was done to him. We see a counterpoint to this idea in the film’s one instance of supernaturalism that can’t be dismissed as fantasy or coincidence: an unambiguous miracle which sees family friend Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson) somehow create the appearance that the Ekdahl children are in their bedroom while he spirits them away in a trunk. The miracle is not framed as an act of will, but as an expression of grief and defiance—his plan thwarted and degraded by anti-Semitic slurs, Isak flings himself to the floor and cries out in appeal. If a lifetime of subjugation can bring a person to ruin, that same power can also be used on the side of righteousness.

Bergman’s spiritual preoccupations do not resolve neatly into one tradition. The musty Kabbalism of the Jacobi curiosity shop, the Vergerus house’s puritan austerity, the theater’s “little world,” and the children’s ghost stories all feel of a piece as disparate expressions of just one search for the things outside human sight. Heartily agnostic, Bergman prefers “and” to “either/or.” This superposition of opposites is most clearly realized in the savant of the Jacobi house. Ismael Retzinsky is a fully permeable membrane, unable to bear the presence of others because he cannot keep them at ontological arm’s length—when invited to write his own name, Alexander finds he has written Ismael’s.

Played with androgyne menace by Stina Ekblad (you could imagine David Bowie or Tilda Swinton in an anglophone production), Ismael implies something of an atomic instability: Breaking down binaries of male and female, self and other, reality and fantasy, desire and deed. This collapse is what allows the film’s drama to resolve through childlike magical thinking; through association and transference rather than causal connection we view the fire which kills Edvard as an expression of Alexander’s wish for revenge, the blind and psychologically absent aunt overturning her bedside lamp merely a cipher. This confluence of happenstance and miracle—so confused as to be indistinguishable—is a recurring element in Bergman’s work, the most famous perhaps being the climax of Through A Glass Darkly, which sees the heroine anticipate the appearance of God from inside a wardrobe, only for an orbiting helicopter to shake the door loose with its vibration at the critical moment.

The film does not pose the question of whether Alexander is a murderer by association, but we do feel the catharsis of the act. Parallels are often drawn between Alexander’s experiences in the Vergerus palace and Bergman’s own childhood (his father was a Lutheran minister), and the film’s nostalgic recreation of the city of his youth certainly does leave the impression of more direct autobiography. Without being stated outright we sense that, through Alexander’s play in the interstices between truth and fabrication, we’re watching the formation of an artist.

For one as sensitive as Alexander—less equipped to face his father’s terrible kabuki death rattle than his younger sister—the denial of material reality becomes, as he later tells the bishop, a way “to gain an advantage.” His lies are in fact not outright falsehoods, but transfigurations of the truth—his mother may not have sold him to a traveling circus, but her impending marriage to Edvard will put him in bondage. At Oscar’s funeral, Alexander snubs his nose at decorum with coprolalia: “cock, piss, shit, fart, piss, hell, shit…” Oscar’s sick-bucket and pale corpse fresh in his mind, he knows that death is not sacred but profane.

But if dishonesty is a kind of a refuge, it’s also entrapment. Expressing one of Bergman’s pet themes—the relationship between identity and art—Ekdahl matriarch Helena tells Isak, “We all must play our parts. Some play them negligently, others with great care.” In another of the film’s irreconcilable ambiguities, when Oscar (a very bad actor, his mother notes) suffers a stroke during a rehearsal for Hamlet, it plays both as a disorientation and also an awakening from the performative daze of adult life: “What am I doing here?” “You were acting.” “I was acting? Why was I acting?”

As well as perhaps winking at the perceived frivolity of art’s utility (not for nothing does the opening shot feature a proscenium arch bearing the words “Not For Pleasure Alone”), we’re reminded that the taking on of roles in society isn’t play; it’s obligation. Nostalgia for childhood is, in part, a mourning for the loss of the authenticity possible before the self makes its split under the weight of social expectation and the shames of pubescence.

In a bid to say everything, Fanny and Alexander sees Bergman contradict himself as much as possible—more than convince us of a worldview, he wants to dizzy us with irreconcilables. “One day she will prove everything I just said wrong,” says Gustav, picking up his newborn daughter after a heart-warming speech to the reunited family, lest we take him for Bergman’s mouthpiece. In the closing moments, Alexander lies in his grandmother’s lap while she reads from Strindberg’s A Dream Play: “Everything can happen. Everything is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist. On a flimsy framework of reality, the imagination spins, weaving new patterns.” Throwing his hands up to absolutes, Bergman leaves us the only truth with which he appears comfortable: the truth never settles, always requiring reinvention.