Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Before I get started, I should specify I saw the three-hour theatrical cut of Fanny and Alexander. After watching, I learned there's also a five-hour version that was re-cut as a miniseries then screened in theaters. Honestly, there's a part of me that really wants to see that five-hour cut for comparison.

That's not happening anytime soon, though.

Fanny and Alexander is a Swedish film written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, director of [checks notes] some of the greatest and most influential movies ever made. According to Wikipedia, this was a fictionalized version of Bergman's own childhood and was intended to be his final film. His actual last film came out twenty-one years later, so take that with a grain of salt.

Before I get to plot, theme, and, well, CHRISTMAS, I should mention this movie is a goddamn work of art and probably among the most beautiful cinematic works I've ever put in front of my eyes. It's a wonder to behold, it deserves its Academy Award, and it's great.

But is it Christmas?

More specifically, is it a Christmas movie? Well... that's complicated. The first third is set during Christmas Eve, which is technically less than the 50% test I use as a rule-of-thumb. But that same link mentions several exceptions, including movies where Christmas plays a pivotal role. And Christmas maybe definitely probably might play a pivotal role here. Arguably. Under some interpretations.

Let's talk plot. Or at least, let's try to talk plot, because Fanny and Alexander is either absurdly convoluted or ridiculously simple, depending on how you synopsize it. For example, here's a summary of what happens in this movie:

Alexander's father passes away, his mother remarries a bishop who is physically and emotionally abusive, his mother arranges for her children to be smuggled out of the house, then the bishop dies in a situation that is ambiguously accidental or due to magical interference.

See. A nice simple movie. Only not so much. That synopsis starts more an hour in and omits... well, basically everything. The family Alexander belongs to is a web of sexual politics and existential quandary. There are vast subplots exploring Alexander's uncle's (who may or may not secretly be his real father) polyamorous relationships. And that "magical interference" stuff I glossed over goes in some bizarre directions, thanks to the late introduction of Ishmael, a boy (played by an actress) locked in a backroom to keep him from placing the outside world in danger. He's possibly a reflection of Alexander or not, and he seems to manipulate reality, psychically weaponizing Alexander's hate to create a series of unlikely coincidences resulting in the bishop being burned alive.

Also, there are ghosts and a 4000-year-old mummy that still draws breath. And maybe all of it's just in Alexander's head, and maybe the point is what is he imagines is more real than the mundane version that literally played out in the real world, because art is better equipped to make sense of the world than dogmatism.

Let's talk about Christmas. And paganism. And gender politics. And... God, I don't even know where to start.

Christmas it is. As I said before, the first hour is devoted to the holiday. The decor in Alexander's grandmother's house is Greco Roman, making the celebrations feel more like Saturnalia than modern Christmas. Philosophies on sexual relationships also mirror more liberal pagan traditions (or at least modern appraisals of those traditions). I mentioned earlier that several characters are in polyamorous relationships. These are portrayed positively - all involved understand what's occurring and are comfortable with the situation.

In short, in the context of this movie Christmas is used as a reference point connecting the family to a pagan way of life, contrasted with the more stoic Christian way of living, represented by the bishop. Christmas, in other words, is an escape from Christianity (or at least conservative Christianity).

It's worth noting these are somewhat gendered, too. The movie heavily associates feminine iconography with Christmas in the form of angels (who, I should note, seem to mirror nude sculptures and paintings adorning the family estate). These are also compared with various female characters - Christmas, in a sense, belongs to the women at the beginning of the movie, just as the house and theater belong to the matriarchs at the end and the world is promised to an infant girl (I know, I know: I haven't explained ANY of this, but this movie is really complicated and this article is long enough as it is).

The world belonging to men, in contrast, is bleak and sparse. When the bishop marries Alexander's mother, he insists her and the children move into his home without their possessions to live an austere life. There are obvious parallels between this and the subjugation of pagan cultures during the spread of Christianity. Man's world is a world of strict rules and unambiguous facts. Reality is truth, and all else - including art, dreams, and magic - is a lie.

Between these choices, the movie clearly embraces the pagan, feminine, imaginative world.

In an interesting twist, this can be seen as celebrating aspects of Christmas typically vilified, namely consumerism and over-indulgence, as virtues encouraging creativity and excitement, compared with stifling religious extremism.

Or you can look at the movie in an entirely different light. The Wikipedia page alone offers a plethora of different interpretations. This is a weird, elaborate, film that resists distillation. It's a movie where a character believes he's encountering God Himself, only to instead be confronted by a puppet operated as a joke; a puppet that almost immediately drops lifelessly to the floor in a sequence seemingly acting out Nietzsche's proclamation that God is dead. Then, barely missing a beat, we're immediately shown a living mummy that appears to actually be present. Or maybe that's another trick - if there's an answer as to what's real and what is not, it's not immediately obvious (and, for what it's worth, the closing lines of the film strongly imply there are no such answers).

So, under some interpretations, Christmas serves a crucial, symbolic role in this movie, standing in for pagan imagination in contrast to the religion its named after. Or maybe Bergman just wanted a lot of color early on. Or maybe he wanted to recreate elements of a Christmas he found memorable in his youth. Or maybe...

You see the dilemma. I can consider this a Christmas movie if and only if the holidays are present to play a pivotal role, but the movie is structured in such a way as to make it impossible to assign clear roles in any form. It has no interest in adhering to strict ideological rules of any sort, including my silly litmus tests.

But screw it. This movie is breathtaking and engrossing in a way few films can hope to be. It offers a glimpse into a world that's at once real and magical - a past as it's remembered. If you love movies and are patient with slow narratives, check this out. It's really something to behold.