Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With the Oscars airing on Sunday, we look back at Best Picture nominees that should have won.
Ingmar Bergman eschews his then-trademark black-and-white for a sumptuous, haunting, crimson-hued color palette in Cries And Whispers, his 1972 drama about two sisters (and their maid) caring for their dying sibling in an opulent turn-of-the-century Swedish estate. Though it absurdly lost the Best Picture Oscar to the entertaining but lightweight The Sting, it remains the cream of that year’s crop of nominees, a masterful depiction of grief and nastiness, misery and benevolence. Steeped in suffering, the film creates a deliberately dreamlike portrait of disparate reactions to death, generating its ominously ethereal mood via across-the-board phenomenal performances and, just as crucially, expert direction from Bergman and Academy Award-winning cinematography from Sven Nykvist. Through expressive framing, graceful zooms and camera pans, and deep reds, the two silently express the agony of Agnes (Harriet Andersson), who’s perishing in bed from cancer, as well as the torment of her two sisters, Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), and their servant Anna (Kari Sylwan), who all take turns watching over Agnes both before and after she succumbs to her disease.
While Bergman’s images are often marked by stark blacks and whites courtesy of characters’ flowing gowns and bed sheets, it’s red that dominates the director’s visuals—a color that suggests blood, mortality, and pain, not only with regards to the dying Agnes, but to the cold, nasty Maria and Karin. In flashbacks to past incidents involving their spouses, the two sisters exhibit a cruelty (and penchant for self-mutilation) that furthers Bergman’s caustic view of vanity and egotism, the latter captured in a stunning prolonged close-up of Ullman in which her features—and personality—are severely scrutinized by her physician lover (Erland Josephson). Throughout, the interplay of light and shadow creates a mesmerizing sense of the struggle between humanity’s best and worst impulses, with the marginalized and disrespected Anna eventually becoming a beacon of Virgin Mary-like compassion when she cradles the Christ-like Agnes in a late, unforgettable, pieta-inspired composition—one that, like the rest of the film, radiates otherworldly beauty and grace.
Availability: Cries And Whispers is available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix. The film is also currently streaming on Hulu Plus.