Four people are spending summer vacation on Sweden's Faro Island.note Martin (von Sydow) is a doctor, married to Karin (Anderson). Also on the island are Karin's brother Minus, a 17-year-old ball of hormones, and David (Gunnar Björnstrand), Karin and Minus's father, who is a writer and is rather distant from his children.
What starts off as a rather unexceptional day by the seashore is soon revealed to be darker. Minus resents David's lack of interest in him. Karin, as it happens, has a far worse problem: she is suffering from schizophrenia. She has been sent home from the hospital after receiving shock treatments that have temporarily helped her get a better grasp on reality, but her condition is essentially incurable.note Karin's illness, besides causing her to suffer from visual and auditory hallucinations, has also caused some distance in her relationship with her husband, as she no longer feels sexual desire.
Over a period of roughly a day, Karin suffers a major relapse. Her illness causes her male relations to question their own lives and their relationships with each other.
Through A Glass Darkly won the 1962 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
- Bittersweet Ending: After suffering her relapse and breakdown Karin basically gives up, and asks to be taken back to the hospital. But Minus and David finally make a connection as David talks about The Power of Love, with Minus saying "Papa spoke to me."
- BrotherSister Incest: After a disturbed Karin runs off, her brother finally finds her huddling inside a wrecked ship lying on the beach. She passionately embraces him, and they have sex. Both of them are disturbed about it afterwards, with Karin blaming the voices.
- Bungled Suicide: David tells Martin that while he was away, he tried to commit suicide by driving a car off a cliff. The car stalled.
- Complete-the-Quote Title: It's from the well-known 12th chapter of I Corinthians, in which Paul describes the limit of human understanding as "we see through a glass, darkly."
- Downfall by Sex: One of the biggest contributors to Karin's breakdown at the end is her one-time incestuous affair with her brother.
- Extremely Short Timespan: Only one day.
- Face Framed in Shadow: Many times, as characters are framed and shot with all the care of a Renaissance painting. One shot features Karin in bed, her face in darkness except for a beam of moonlight illuminating one eye.
- Foreshadowing: A horny Minus's comment about wishing Karin wouldn't wear such flattering clothing, and Karin's rather oddly interested reaction when she catches Minus with a nudie magazine, foreshadow the incest later in the film.
- Freak Out: Karin, towards the end, when she finally "sees God" and is absolutely horrified.
- Hallucinations: Karin thinks that the space behind the wallpaper of the attic is a waiting room where people are sitting and waiting for God to show up.
- Hearing Voices: Just one manifestation of Karin's illness. She hears voices which tell her to do things like kiss her brother or go to the attic to wait for God.
- Literary Allusion Title: Comes from 1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV):For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
- Locked Out of the Loop: While Karin is definitely aware she has schizophrenia, no one has told her that during her last hospital stay the doctors judged her to be incurable. She is not at all happy when she finds this out by reading her father's journal.
- Minimalist Cast: The four characters listed on this page are the only ones who appear in the movie. There aren't even any extras (apart from whoever was flying the helicopter ambulance).
- Most Writers Are Writers: David is a well-known novelist who is suffering from writer's block. He thinks he can use his daughter's illness as material, but feels bad for thinking that.
- My New Gift Is Lame: David gives out presents that he claimed he bought in Switzerland, which either don't fit or are things the recipients already owned. Karin, Minus and Martin deduce that he actually bought them at the airport in Stockholm after he landed.
- Porn Stash: Minus is very embarrassed when Karin catches him looking at what is obviously a well-worn nudie magazine. Karin is cool about it—maybe a little too cool, in light of later events—thumbing through the magazine and asking him which girls he likes best.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Martin delivers a pretty efficient one to David, saying that he's "void of all feeling", and calling him a bad writer to boot.
- Sanity Slippage: Karin throughout the movie. It eventually makes her beg her husband to let her go back to the hospital.Karin: I can't keep it straight anymore. Is everything just an illness?
- Shout-Out: Minus writing and staging a play for his father to watch is an idea borrowed from Chekhov's The Seagull.
- Speech-Centric Work: Want to see 90 minutes of people talking? Well, that and a little dose of strongly implied incest? This film might be the Platonic ideal of the European black-and-white art movie in which people sit around and talk about the nature of God and human existence.
- Spiders Are Scary: When Karin finally does see God, it's in the form of a spider trying to rape her. Luckily, the audience don't get to see it. Criterion's DVD box set of the Silence of God trilogy features a tarantula on the cover.
- Spiteful Spit: Minus spits on Karin in frustration when she gets a little too cavalier about his nudie magazine. She acknowledges that she overstepped a line.
- A Storm Is Coming: Early in the film Martin and David look out to sea and speculate on whether a storm is coming. Later it does come, and it helps push Karin over the edge.Karin: The rain is coming.
- Take That!: Minus and Karin stage a little play about a self-absorbed writer that David, probably correctly, takes as an insult.
- Thematic Series: It is the first of three films concerned with God's silence. It's followed by Winter Light and Tystnaden, but the films aren't at all connected on a plot continuity level.
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Minus doesn't so much want David's approval, just some attention and appreciation.
- Writer's Block: David struggles with this, partly because he's desperate for critical approval rather than just sales. It's not helped by his 17-year-old son casually mentioning he's written 13 plays and one opera so far this summer.