The Silence is a film of negation. The first words spoken -  the first of not very many, at that - are a declaration of ignorance and meaninglessness. A boy of ten or eleven, Johan (Jörgen Lindström) points to a sign written in an unfamiliar language, asking, "Vad betyder det?" (What does that mean?). Off-camera a tired-sound woman, his aunt Ester (Ingrid Thulin) replies without a trace of affect: "Jag vet inte" (I don't know).

In a sense, we're all done. The remainder of the film's 95 minutes will be little more than expanding on this moment, and its implications. A necessary expansion, maybe, and certainly a rich one. The Silence is generally referred to as the third in a loose stylistic and thematic trilogy of films written and directed by Ingmar Bergman that began with Through a Glass Darkly in 1961 and continued with Winter Light earlier in 1963: a matched set of chamber dramas that track the loss of faith in a loving God who hears us and responds, replaced by a fear that God does not speak and may not exist at all (that is, by most accounts, the specific silence that the title refers to). That's in it, of course, but The Silence feels a whole lot bigger and more thematically inquisitive than those films, covering more ground and taking place in a larger world than their tightly-restricted pockets of rural Sweden.

It is, in fact, the first Bergman film to have left Sweden since his horribly misguided political thriller This Can't Happen Here, thirteen years prior (and that film still took place in Sweden, even if it claimed not to). It is the story of one day in live of three travelers: Ester, a translator, and her sister Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), and Johan, Anna's son. They are on a train moving through a country, apparently edging towards war, whose language they don't speak (Bergman based it on Estonian, the native language of his wife Käbi Laretei), and here they will spend the night in a hotel. Ester is sick and getting sicker, and there's absolutely no love lost between the sisters, and they are apparently using Johan as the battleground for the present stage of their ongoing feud. Anna drifts around the city and has sex with a stranger, while Johan runs around the hotel, and Ester's declining health gets in the way of her doing much of anything.

Not much story, and it's not pushed forward with any particular urgency. Bergman set himself a challenge in writing and directing The Silence, and it was to back off on using dialogue as much as he possibly could. He later felt like he missed this mark, and that there are scenes where people talk when they don't need to, but The Silence generally lives up to its title, with scene after scene of characters sitting in the great sinking weight of unpleasant, isolated moments. I called this a film of negation, and one of the negative things about it is its propensity for great, yawning, empty moments of nothing much happening. The film's great, overriding theme is isolation, and the terror of being separated from other beings; this is the major difference in how this film's barren, nihilistic theology is different from Through a Glass Darkly or Winter Light, in which God's absence from the world is terrifying because it would imply that there is no meaning. In The Silence, God's absence (which is so complete that the characters don't even talk or think about it) is terrifying because it means that we are all of us ultimately alone. And this is carried out through all of those empty scenes: they are empty in part because for there to be drama, there must be multiple humans to get in each other's way, just as there can only be dialogue, in its strictest definition, when there are two speakers. Much of The Silence is dedicated to depriving us of even that small amount of interhuman connectivity. It is a film that could easily be described as boring or slow-moving, but there is a profound hostility to that boredom; it is not the slowness of languid storytelling without any hurry or purpose, but the exhaustion of an animal slowly dying in the burning sun. We are trapped in these rooms and in these moments, slowly suffocating as they trudge on.

More of the usual Bergman joyless misery, then, except that The Silence marks the point in his directorial career where he really starts to think about film as a visual medium, and not as a kind of much more elaborate version of theater. One can almost read between the lines of what he wrote and said about the film later on, and suppose that he was deliberately pushing himself in that direction by making the decision to back off on dialogue so much. In the absence of the spoken word, the image is all we have, and The Silence finds Bergman playing with that a bit. For one thing, this is the first time that he gives us a shot of one character (Ester) facing directly into the camera, while another camera (Anna) looks off to the side at precisely 90 degrees away from the first character, and they're lined up so that their faces overlap. This composition is of course primarily associated with Persona, which the director would make three years and two films after this, and that's entirely fair and correct: Persona is, in some ways, a better version of The Silence. But it's the same basic idea, being used for the same basic purpose, to visually indicate the collapse of the ego and the moment that two people's identities blur together. Where Persona uses this as a way of digging into the idea that its two main characters are facets of a single personality, though, The Silence is using it more ironically, as a way of underlining the division between the sister, and their incompatibility. For one thing, the composition is much less table here, lasting only a second or two in its "pure" form, as Lindblom shifts around in frame; it makes it much more about the perpendicular direction of the actors' gazes. For another thing, it occurs during the only genuinely talky moment in the entire film, as Anna expresses, with angry, destructive joy, how much she detests Ester, and how impossibly incompatible they are. It's the only redundant moment in the film, when the dialogue and visuals are doing exactly the same thing, and it's the particular moment that Bergman felt was a mistake for that reason. But I find that the visuals linger more than the words anyway, and it's satisfying for Lindblom to have a great big speech to deliver in the only one of her several films with the director where she actually gets a major leading role.

So the Persona Shot happens, and that's very exciting. But it's far from the only piece of storytelling through composition and camera, and maybe not even the best. I am quite taken by the camera movement that opens the film, and climaxes with that exchange of dialogue I mentioned up at the top: the camera starts on Johan and then pans around the space, seeing his mother and his aunt before it ends on an empty door that he walks up to. And that's when he spots a sign, and asks what it means. Just like that, in one fluid, probing motion, we've met all three characters and been introduced to the idea that they are alone in a world that they can't communicate with, in little atomised chunks of a single shot that unifies all these elements while allowing us to encounter them as isolated pieces.

It introduces as well to Johan's curiosity and desire to learn more about this place, in contrast with his aunt's ignorance and his mother's indifference, and this is both what lightens The Silence above the pure crushing depression of Winter Light and gives it a more tragic feeling than just being joyless. It sounds reductive, but in practice it isn't, that Johan is basically innocent and guileless and interested in what's going on around him: his third of the movie largely consists of him tearing around the cavernous spaces of the hotel - this is, amongst its other strengths, a fantastic entrant in the '60s European Art Films About Hotels cycle, with Sven Nykvist using wide lenses to exaggerate the height and depth of the hallways - and encountering weird, vaguely apocalyptic figures, with whom he is able to find some way of communicating at a pre-verbal level. Much of this is simply because he has the earnest, simple thoughts of youth, and they cotton to this. It contrasts him strongly with both of the women he's with, who are in their own ways broken and despairing from all the profound loneliness that clings to them, and given the film's suggestion that both Anna and Ester are both pouring themselves into Johan, it seems clear enough that he's heading for that same despair soon enough. Still, in the moment of our watching him, Johan feels like a note of cautious, guarded, cloudy optimism, a way to escape the spiritual desolation of the people and the city around him. He also allows us to be more aware of that desolation: framing so many of the shots through his perspective and over his should allows us to see things that not might register as a contrast his his boyish simplicity, most powerfully a shot a tank crawling down the streets at night; a heavy symbol for Cold War tension that is more astonishing by virtue of being contrasted with Johan's ignorance of such matters.

This is part of what makes the film subtler than the hurricane-strength sweep of themes and ideas marking Bergman's films just prior to this. One does not get pummeled by The Silence's ideas; one must tug at them and tease them out. They all lead to the same place - the pain of the lonely human, manifested as sickness or as joyless sexual voraciousness (or a desire to possess Johan that manifests, for both women, as an incestuous impulse). There is in fact quite a lot of sex in the movie, enough to both cause huge trouble with the head censor (who was on vacation when the film got passed without cuts), and to make this the highest-grossing film of Bergman's career, internationally, from audiences who probably didn't find the experience nearly as sexy as they were promised. Unless ugly, unappealing sex as an insufficient measure to find some way of connecting to the world and other people is your thing.

The whole film does a superb job of presenting this large-scale theme of loneliness in every way, from the breakdown of the script into scenes that push the characters apart, to the isolating use of single shots except to punctuate moments with shocking use of pairs or groups, to the way that Nykvist has endeavored to make the sets go back what feel like dozens of yards into a vanishing point, and then situating the characters along that deep space so that they feel like they're all trapped in different aquariums. It's quite unhappy, of course; in a career that was marked by unhappy films, 1963 still represents an unusually intense distillation of Bergman's most miserable tendencies. But it crafts this misery so particularly and with through so many layers of visuals and narrative, that it's still an exceptionally stimulating and gripping film. It represents a huge leap forward for the director's ability to tell stories visually, and this admittedly comes somewhat at the expense of the actors, who aren't given the resources to create characters they had both been given earlier; both Thulin and Lindblom are quite good, but they're quite good at playing shadows and concepts, and not necessarily women. Still, those concepts work immensely well in this situation, and for all its intellectual remoteness, I found The Silence to be a much more emotionally roiling experience this time around than I had remembered, and honestly more than the other two legs of this informal trilogy.