Religion has always been on Ingmar Bergman’s mind. It all started when he was a child, talking with a priest about God. In that conversation, the priest revealed that he wasn’t even sure that God existed. This basically gave little Ingmar an existential crisis. As such, nearly every single film of his is concerned with religion, specifically Christianity, and how different people react to it. In this episode of “Fanny and Alexander,” Bergman takes a harsh, critical look at the culture that religion can cultivate through the character of Bishop Edvard.
Having recently become Fanny and Alexander’s stepfather, Edvard has embraced his job with pure fire and brimstone. He’s more than strict, he’s cruel. He locks up their mother, Emilie, in his depressing house and barely allows her any contact with the outside world. He establishes harsh rules for the children, such as forcing them in their quarters at various hours of the day or making them sleep ridiculously early. The image of the strict Catholic headmaster immediately comes to mind. But Bergman doesn’t paint Edvard as a purely dictatorial force. There’s a twisted reasoning behind his methods. He is essentially the embodiment of tough love, believing that punishment is the only way to rid people of sin.
Clearly, Bergman doesn’t believe that this ideology holds much water. Instead, he uses Edvard to challenge the idea of martyrdom. Because of the story of Christ’s crucifixion, there’s been a fixation on the idea of suffering in the name of atonement. Clearly, the concept of anybody else attempting to atone for their sins through suffering is ridiculous. Sure, Jesus suffered, but he also had the benefit of not being mortal.
Edvard takes this idea one step further by inflicting it upon others, even children. It instills in these impressionable youths a strong sense of guilt that can’t be shaken. A key example of the effects this upbringing can have is a hallucination sequence where Alexander envisions the spirits of Edvard’s dead family haunting him. They blame Alexander for being a horrible child and for ruining Edvard’s life. I subscribe to the idea that these visions are just a result of Alexander’s hyperactive imagination rather than literal ghosts. So what do they actually say about Alexander?
Well, earlier it was established that Emilie was unable to divorce Edvard because Edvard would then demand custody of the children. If Alexander knows this, it probably plays a lot into his guilt. His mother and sister are trapped in a depressing, white-walled hellhole and he feels he’s to blame. It’s why he makes up stories about Edvard murdering his family: if that turns out the be the case, his family would be free and he wouldn’t have to bear the burden of hurting his mother.
The scene where he gets whipped is another effective illustration of this idea. Here, Edvard is enacting his ideal of using suffering to atone for past sins. However, Alexander is practicing his own version of martyrdom. He eggs Edvard on, taking on more punishment than necessary just to spite him. It’s a form of self-flagellation for the misdeeds that he actually feels guilty about. It’s why he’s able to attain a level of respect from Edvard by the end of the whole ordeal. Alexander played into Edvard’s idea of a martyr well. But in doing so, he’s started a small rebellion.