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DVD Pick: "Fanny & Alexander"

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At the 1984 Academy Awards ceremony, Ingmar Bergman's "Fanny & Alexander" (1982) received four Oscars: Best Art Direction-Set Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Foreign Language Film. The movie also received Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, but did not win in these categories.

I've heard Bergman films compared to musical compositions, and many of his movies are small and somewhat similar to chamber pieces. But "Fanny & Alexander" is a big film that is more like a symphony for a large orchestra and chorus. According to Peter Cowie's commentary on the DVD, the movie has 60 speaking parts and over 1200 extras.

I think of "Fanny & Alexander" as a dreamlike fairy tale being told by Bergman in his 60s about his alter ego Alexander Ekdahl, a boy of 10 or 11. I imagine Bergman based his story very loosely on his own boyhood, but he took many liberties. For example, he set the film in about 1907-1909, two decades earlier than his own real-life childhood. Also, Bergman lived in Stockholm when he was Alexander's age in the movie, while the film takes place about 40 miles away in the small city of Uppsala, where Bergman’s grandmother resided.

I find the movie's first hour depicting a family celebrating Christmas to be enormously enjoyable. Bergman uses lush visuals to show Alexander growing up happy in the bosom of the loving, rambunctious, free-wheeling Ekdahl clan. But things take a turn for the worse for the boy when his gentle father dies. Soon his bereaved mother marries a severe, repressive clergyman who makes Alexander’s life miserable.

But "Fanny & Alexander" isn’t focused narrowly on Alexander. Rather, he is at the center of a grand tale involving his extended family, including his grandmother and her boyfriend, his parents, his stepfather, his younger sister Fanny, uncles, aunts, cousins, and household servants. The entire Ekdahl clan becomes troubled when Alexander, his sister, and his mother fall under the domination of the clergyman, and it takes a supernatural intervention by the grandmother's boyfriend to begin to set things right.

I suppose most people think of Bergman films as being chilly and depressing, but I would say that "Fanny & Alexander" manifests considerable warmth and a lusty vitality. The film even has a feel-good epilogue featuring an elaborate scene celebrating the christening of two Ekdahl babies. Furthermore, the ending promises artistic renewal: the revitalized Ekdahl family theater will stage a new play, and Alexander's mother and his grandmother will perform in it.

Actually, the three-hour "Fanny & Alexander" that has been shown in theaters has always been a trimmed-down version of a five-hour, four-episode television miniseries. Now Criterion Collection has released a Five-Disc Special Edition DVD set that includes both the television and theatrical versions of “Fanny & Alexander.” I prefer the television version because I think it is more richly textured, is dramatically more cohesive, and has greater emotional impact.

However, the DVDs provide no commentary track for the television version, while the theatrical version comes with an excellent feature-length audio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie. In it, Cowie declares, "I think 'Fanny & Alexander' represents a summing up of [Bergman's] life. It adumbrates so many of the themes we know from the breakthrough Bergman films of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. But it's also a coming to terms with himself for Bergman." I found it fascinating to listen to Cowie as he develops this thesis while commenting on the film for more than three hours.

The theatrical version of "Fanny & Alexander" is on a single disc, while the television version is spread over two, with Episodes 1 and 2 on the first disc and Episodes 3 and 4 on the second. The second disc of the TV version also contains "A Bergman Tapestry," a predominantly English-language 2004 documentary consisting of crew and cast interviews interspersed with clips. The interviews I found most interesting were those of actors Bertil Guve (Alexander), Ewa Fröling (Alexander's mother), and Pernilla August (the maid impregnated by Alexander's uncle).

In addition to the three discs already described, the Five-Disc Special Edition has two discs collectively titled "The Making of Fanny & Alexander" after the principal offering on them. The making-of documentary, which runs an hour and fifty minutes, was directed by Bergman himself and released in 1983. This is unlike any making-of I’ve ever seen since it consists entirely of people actually making the movie. I found it particularly interesting to watch Bergman work with the child actors, as well as with his longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist. But what will always stay in my mind is the heartbreaking footage of aging actor Gunnar Björnstrand, obviously in failing health, doing takes of the "Fool’s Song" from "Twelfth Night."

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