When highfalutin’ critics make their list of Christmas films, this film ranks near the top. Originally made for television (312 minutes long, it was shown in four parts). I watched the theatrical version, which was cut to 188 minutes (only about three hours). It won Oscars in 1984 for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography, as well as for art decoration and costumes. Ingmar Bergman was nominated for direction and screenwriting.
Bergman is known for his dour, existential approach to filmmaking, so critics and audiences were surprised by the relatively large amount of joy to Fanny & Alexander. Not all of the film is set at Christmas time, but nearly the whole first hour is an elaborate and festive yuletide celebration. Part of that celebration is a Christmas pageant presented by the community theater. Oscar Ekdahl is the director of the community theater, and we follow his family in the film. He and his wife Emilie are the parents of the film’s titular children, Fanny and Alexander.
We see Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus being visited by Wise Men. A angel warns of Herod (perhaps foreshadowing dangers to come for the children in the film).
The angel then speaks to the audience: “Thus, good people, ends our play. It all ends well this Holy day. The Son of God, saved from the sword, is our Savior, Christ, the Lord. We know that in His mercy mild, He guards every woman, man and child.”
Sven Nykvist’s work as a cinematographer is highlighted, as the camera tours this elegant Swedish home of 1907. Christmas trees and wreaths and seasonal art decorate the home; elaborate meat and pastry dishes decorate the tables. There are songs and games and a reading from Luke 2. There is much laughter around the tables. Fanny and Alexander share a sleeping room with their young cousins, leading to a happily destructive pillow fight. They pray together, racing through a memorized list of names of friends and relatives.
One part of the Christmas celebration that is not very Christlike is an adulterous relationship between one of the uncles and a maid. All of the adults seem aware of the situation and find it amusing. Even the wife just sighs and looks disapproving.
Bergman’s work is remembered as bleak and despairing, but the opening of this first hour of the movie is one of the most joyous celebrations of Christmas captured on film. And the quiet center of it all is Oscar, Fanny and Alexander’s father, who says about his theater, “I want to see generosity. My only talent is I love this little world and the people who work in it.” But then dark Bergman returns. Oscar has a heart attack and dies. There is a big funeral at which Alexander curses uncontrollably.
At the funeral dinner, the Bishop spends time with Emilie, the children’s mother. The Bishop is described as the spiritual guide to the parish, and Emilie is concerned about Alexander telling lies at school. She asks the Bishop speak to him.
As the Bishop smokes his pipe, he asks to speak to Alexander “man to man”. He says to him, “Can you tell me what a lie is and what is the truth? We have plenty of time, Alexander. Can you explain to us why you lied at school about being sold to the circus?” The Bishop runs his hand through Alexander’s hair and puts his hand on his neck, which is kind of creepy. He tells Alexander is the truth of gift of God.
It is not a happy home. Edvard doesn’t allow the children to play; they are to live in ascetic solidarity. Alexander defies his stepfather, and Edvard beats him. Emilie soon sees she made a mistake in marrying the Bishop, but when she threatens to leave, he tells her that would be desertion. He would have the right to keep the children.