As I continue my quest through the acclaimed works of Ingmar Bergman, I was recommended this based on the knowledge that Bergman regarded Through a Glass Darkly to be his closest achievement to 'perfection'. As the first installment of what Bergman has tagged The Faith Trilogy, which also includes Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963), Through a Glass Darkly is an examination of one young woman's descent into madness and the impact it has on her immediate family. The film opens with four figures emerging from the ocean onto a pier and running along the jetty towards the shore. These are Karin (Harriet Andersson), her husband Martin (Max Von Sydow), her younger brother Minus, and their father David. Karin suffers from schizophrenia and has recently been released from a hospital after shock therapy treatment. Despite the possibility of some mild symptoms returning, the treatment has likely cured her illness. Martin is optimistic that his love for Karin will keep her free from her delusions, however, David is convinced that his daughter's struggle is incurable and that she will have a relapse. As a celebrated second-rate novelist, much of the conflict arises when David reveals he wishes to monitor her recovery as material for a new novel, to both the horror of Martin and eventually Karin, when she finds out too.
In a terrific early sequence when the group settles down to dinner, David presents some last-minute gifts from abroad, but his children give him one also, in the form of a play that Minus has written. Minus and Karin perform what becomes an attack on David's craft as a novelist. He hides his anger, but it is clear that Minus' dislike for his father, which stems from his neglect of his family for the purpose of becoming successful, is a passionate one. The group is actually gathering on holidays to celebrate Karin's release from hospital and the return of David from abroad and each family member has a complex relationship with one another that is examined during this 24 hour period. They often act as mirrors to one another when they encounter one another one on one. David and Martin disagree as to the possibility of Karin being fully cured, Martin extends as much love as he possibly can toward Karin to try and deter her from having a relapse, but while she knows he cares for her, she rejects his sexual advances and instead aggressively pushes them on her younger brother Minus. In a sequence near the conclusion, it hints that they have sex. Minus is estranged from his father and feels like they have never had a real conversation, and is searching for an answer to God's existence to explain why Karin is how she is. He takes the most care of Karin during her breakdown period, but doesn't fully understand what she is going through.
Through a Glass Darkly, thematically, is incredibly dark. The film slowly grows in intensity, and the drama is tightly woven and ultimately heartbreaking. The climax is a terrifying breakdown, as Karin, believing that God will reveal himself to her though a door in the attic, sees him in the form of a spider that she screams attempted to penetrate her. We never see such a creature, but her horrified reaction is all that we require to grasp what she is experiencing. In the conclusion, Karin is transported to a hospital by helicopter, accompanied by Martin, while David and Minus remain behind and for the first time have an absorbing conversation, discussing the existence of God within love. Through a Glass Darkly is a gripping work of art, where the brevity of the feature works to its advantage. The handful of characters are all effortlessly developed and not a moment is wasted on idle activity. While I didn't find as much enjoyment in Through a Glass Darkly as in some of Bergman's other established masterpieces like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries (both 1957), it is the work of a master auteur so assured in his abilities that everything he creates becomes as close to perfection as you can get.