A modest work, tossed off amid friends perhaps to clear his mind in between The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring, Ingmar Bergman's brief stay at a maternity ward locates the writhing life missing in his medieval time-traveling. The mystery here is not Death but Birth, namely the babies gestating within women's bellies, and the souls of women within the bare walls of modern medicine -- the X-raying camera is the filmmaker's own medical instrument, visceral quality spun off Dreyer's Ordet and given to the virtuosic actresses to play with. Ingrid Thulin, terse and haggard, is wheeled in first, a plastic doll on the floor of the waiting room and bloodied sheets, the fetus having leaked out of her "like water" because it was never really loved; tears, anger and regret ooze in brutally unbroken close-up, her marriage to Erland Josephnson now bathed in a harsh light. Her piece spoken, Thulin cedes the stage over to her ward mates, bulging Earth mamma Eva Dahlbeck and ponytailed teenager Bibi Andersson, running away from home already after one previous abortion. Women as anguished life-bearers are at the center, combing each other's hair and helping apply makeup; the fumbling menfolk are husbands and surgeons, Max von Sydow and a male voice over the phone denying all responsibility for Andersson's pregnancy, along with head doctor Gunnar Sjöberg, as impotent in explaining the mysteries of life as the Winter Light pastor. Indeed, the various miscarriages and botched deliveries in Ulla Isaksson's screenplay are scarcely free of religious overtones -- Dahlbeck hops around the room in ecstatic pre-natal anticipation until a morbid Bible passage, suddenly remembered, halts her gushing, to be later followed by a harrowing Calvary at the delivery table. Drained after her cruel awakening, Dahlbeck wanly reaches for a cup of water, though her hand hardens into a chilly slap when Andersson tries to help, "as if all life had died." But no, life goes on, a close-up of a newborn feasting upon a breast for Bergman's celebration of tangible flesh, freshly born and, like Andersson strolling out the clinic's gates, miraculously open to the world. With Barbro Hiort af Ornäs. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce