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Issue Date:  August 12, 2005

The world according to Bergman

A new film by Sweden's famed writer-director invites study of his long career


No other filmmaker has focused more intently on the life of the soul than the Swedish writer-director Ingmar Bergman. He has taken on the Big Questions: Who are we? What is faith? Can we love without selfishness, live without cruelty? Why do we fear death? His efforts have provided few answers but plenty of inspiration and solace to three generations of viewers. Aided by superb actors and technicians, in his more than 60 films Mr. Bergman created complicated, fantastic images of the real world’s tribulations over the next one, whether his characters believed in it or didn’t. These questioning, often despairing works were avidly watched and debated by all sorts of audiences, but especially by Catholics (often screened on 16mm projectors in religion classes) from the 1950s through the ’70s, when the director was at a seemingly unceasing creative high tide.

Thirty years ago, Mr. Bergman told the story of an ordinary marriage that went terribly wrong. In “Scenes from a Marriage,” Johan and Marianne coped with loneliness, frustration, parenthood, infidelity and divorce in a series of episodes that even now provoke laughter, flinching and rueful nods of recognition. The film, made for Swedish television, ended with a very tentative rapprochement between the alienated couple. On July 8, America was introduced to “Saraband,” a film which Mr. Bergman, who turned 87 on July 14, came out of retirement to write and direct, and which gives Johan and Marianne’s final chapter.

Separated for decades, Johan and Marianne have a tender but uncertain reunion. They are played by the same actors in “Scenes from a Marriage,” Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann. Johan and Marianne, still vital and searching, wonder about what awaits them after life. And there is still plenty of trouble among the living: Johan’s granddaughter, a brilliant young cellist (Julia Dufvenius, playing the last in a long line of Bergman’s tormented artists), hesitates to leave home and her lonely, desperate father (Börje Ahlstedt) to pursue her own life. A saraband is the slow movement of an instrumental suite, and the drama of this riveting work, as small-scale yet all-encompassing as chamber music, is not in how the characters’ stories end, but in how much we can learn from the struggles that engage them as they separate or reconnect. And how they intuit or fail to reach God: In an especially splendid moment, a single ray of light passing through a window causes Liv Ullmann to turn to it, illustrating unforgettably how faith continually rises in us, long after we have thought it over and dismissed it.

“Saraband” may send viewers back to Ingmar Bergman’s canon of films, one of the most impressive of any writer-director in film history. Current and brand-new releases on DVD allow viewers unprecedented access to this most intimate, dramatic and spiritually challenging body of work.

Trained in the Swedish theater, Mr. Bergman quickly added cinema to his repertory, although he never ceased directing for the stage and had several productions successfully tour Europe and America. Early Swedish successes like “Torment” (1944) and “Summer with Monika” (1953) were ignored by foreign film distributors. “Smiles of a Summer Night” (1955, Criterion DVD) changed all that when it unexpectedly won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956. This light, witty comedy of manners and morals inspired the Broadway hit “A Little Night Music,” by Stephen Sondheim (which included the song “Send in the Clowns”), and launched Mr. Bergman as an international phenomenon. Suddenly “foreign films” meant more than sexy French pictures: An entire generation of writers, directors and actors who wanted to put more into their art than Hollywood would ever allow them soon became stars to two generations of viewers.

Mr. Bergman followed this hit with “The Seventh Seal” (1957), one of his most famous, and bleakest, allegories of the human condition. Even people who have never watched a Bergman film know about this one, in which Death plays chess with a medieval knight while priests lead lines of flagellants and crucified witches and the plague has everyone wondering if this is the end of the world. Criterion, which has made a cause of reissuing Mr. Bergman’s films, offers a wonderful visual feast with their “Seventh Seal” DVD. The company’s other Bergman reissues include his TV film of Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” (1975), “Cries and Whispers” (1972), the most shattering study of mortality ever filmed, and the complete “Scenes from a Marriage.” Only a heavily abridged VHS of “Scenes” had previously been available in the United States. Another boxed set offers Mr. Bergman’s somber trilogy exploring a postwar world too frightened and confused to find God: “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961), “Winter Light” and “The Silence” (both 1963).

By the mid-1960s, Mr. Bergman seemed to have exhausted the possibilities of his themes and style. “Persona” (1966), which emerged from that impasse, was not only a striking breakthrough to a new kind of filmmaking; it remains one of his most brilliant efforts. Working with a new cinematographer (Sven Nykvist), Mr. Bergman’s look became lean, sharp, beautiful, consistently surprising. The real world and its nightmares took their places alongside the director’s well-charted terrors of the soul, as when the silent heroine of “Persona,” played by Liv Ullmann in her first of many personal and cinematic roles for Bergman, cringes while watching TV footage of a monk setting himself afire to protest the Vietnam war.

“Persona” is the first of five films issued in a DVD boxed set by MGM Home Entertainment. These include the antiwar tract “Shame” (1968), the searing interpersonal warfare of “The Passion of Anna” (1969) and his most underrated mature work, “Hour of the Wolf” (also 1969), about a painter whose imagination overtakes his fate. The old-style Bergman expressionism comes to newer life in this tight, swift, unsparing drama of the dangers of art and life.

The final lap of the director’s career is perhaps best sampled by “Fanny and Alexander” (1982), just issued by Criterion. The style is dense with insight, rich with imagery, yet sparing and tightly structured. As with “Scenes from a Marriage,” the multidisk set allows viewers to watch the shorter theatrical release of “Fanny” as well as the longer Swedish original. Both are remarkable, a captivating reimagining of the director’s childhood in which autobiography, family drama, fantasy and wonder mingle in a procession of scenes that never fails to bring delight. If “Saraband” is a luminous yet sad farewell to a creative source whose influence can be felt in films of all kinds, from Woody Allen’s comedies and dramas to an entire generation of intimate dramas by French, Asian and American talents, the impressive DVD library of Bergman’s films provides a cinematic and metaphysical resource viewers old and new can find inexhaustible.

Joseph Cunneen, NCR’s regular movie reviewer, is on vacation. His column will return in the next issue.

Patrick Giles writes and edits for Interview magazine and contributes to The New York Sun and Opera News magazine.

National Catholic Reporter, August 12, 2005

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