Allan Ekelund

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The Seventh Seal Review


Essential
Throughout his extensive and impressive filmography, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, who passed away in July 2007, wrestled with the existence and role of God in everyday life. From struggling with mortality toward the end of one's life in Wild Strawberries to the haunting and overbearing view of religion in Fanny and Alexander, no single film has truly captured Bergman's beef with God better than the seminal The Seventh Seal. Released in 1957, the story of a knight returning from the Holy Crusades, with nothing other than a newfound lack of faith, and playing a game of chess against Death to prologue his life long enough to find answers to his holy questions, still spiritually resonates today.

"Why must He hide amidst vague promises and invisible miracles?" the knight questions as he confesses to Death, who is incognito as a priest. The Seventh Seal thrives on these ironic contrasts in its religious investigation. The Christ imagery is inescapable -- from that of the holy monks to the "witch," who is credited with being the origin of the Black Plague -- but instead of being thematically overbearing, it is the glue holding together the earthly lost souls looking for answers. Soon after the chess game against Death begins, the knight and his squire get involved with a traveling band of merry makers. Be it the contrast between the happy-go-lucky players, one of whom has visions of the Virgin Mary, and the domineering monks parading the diseased through the streets, the dichotomy plagues the knight, as he attempts to give the actors safe passage through treacherous lands in a desperate, final good deed.

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Winter Light Review


Excellent
Winter Light, the second film in Ingmar Bergman's early-1960s trilogy on the theme of faith in contemporary society, opens in a cold, stone church in a provincial town north of Stockholm. It's uninviting. A service is underway, and the pastor (played by Gunnar Björnstrand) is explaining the origin of the Holy Communion and Christ's betrayal after the Last Supper. The service is poorly attended, the congregation including only the pastor's mistress (Ingrid Thulin), an older woman and a child, and a young couple, he a fisherman (Max von Sydow), and she a housewife expecting their fourth child (Gunnel Lindblom). Everyone is bundled up against the cold, the organist is noisily checking his watch, and outside the windows snow falls ceaselessly.

Winter Light, like much of Bergman, is a slow ride, but it rewards your close attention. The action here has less to do with the plot than with the conflicts taking place within the hearts and souls of its protagonists. Björnstrand's pastor is one who is in crisis; he is battling to retain his faith, and to accommodate his mistress in his life. She has no belief in God; she nurtures on a more practical level (her job is as a school teacher), and the pastor is constantly rejecting her ministrations. The Swedish title of this film translates to The Communicants, meaning both those who take communion and those who communicate among themselves, and it's the tragedy of the film that none of them can.

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The Silence (1963) Review


Excellent
The Silence would be a fine title for pretty much any Ingmar Bergman movie, but this film truly does earn its moniker, with long stretches of film with no dialogue at all.

The Silence is spare, but not in the desolate wasteland sort of way of many Bergman films. In fact, the movie takes place in a city, mostly within a posh hotel. Two sisters get off a train when one of them, Ester (Ingrid Thulin) is too sick to go on. Her trollop sister Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) checks sis into a hotel, drops off her young son, and spends the hours cruising for men (which she finds). Eventually, Anna and the kid decide to continue on their journey, leaving Ester in the hotel, apparently to die alone.

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Wild Strawberries Review


Weak
I've never been much of an Ingmar Bergman fan, but I have respect for much of his work. Wild Strawberries is the notable exception, often hailed as his best or second-best work (after The Seventh Seal). I frankly think it's sub-par, overwhelmingly oppresive in its obvious imagery -- crucifixion motifs and non-sequitur dream sequences -- to the point where a legion of film students have been prompted to copycat its overt heavy-handedness for half a century. In fact, I keep thinking about The Big Picture, where the film students have produced such ultra-sensitive tripe but find heaps of praise piled upon them anyway. Presumably, the audience is stunned that it can understand the filmic metaphors they have created, and thus, they must be genius.

Wild Strawberries is exactly this type of film, a short but often unbearable production about an ancient doctor grappling with a death that is just around the corner. He ends up on a road trip, filled with false starts, wrong turns, and fantastic dream/fantasy sequences, all designed for him to confront death and question the existence of God. But nothing is really questioned, it is simply presented as bleak and nasty, with our hero facing the inevitability of a void in lieu of the afterlife. The film does not provoke any questions or debate about either death or God.

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Smiles of a Summer Night Review


OK
It's hard to believe this film was made in 1955. But then again only American films of that time seem to have the handcuffs of absolute purity slapped on them, keeping everything on the straight and narrow. Or if not, then it was intended to hit the audience over the head with a morality mallet of where the scary vice of sexual freedom might lead to.

Smiles of a Summer Night follows an ensemble cast through the motions of loving and betraying each other. Fredrik (Gunnar Björnstrand) is married to young Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), who is about his son's age. There were married shortly after his wife died, and have not yet consummated their marriage. This is partly due to him still dreaming of Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck), an actress with whom he had an affair for years (which his wife witnessed), and also due to his current wife not being quite ready for the experience of sex. His son is comically tormented between becoming a part of the clergy and giving into his sinful thoughts, the latter of which their maid continually attempts to influence. Being peers, the maid and wife are also friends despite their differences in life experience. She looks to the maid -- who is treated as part of the family -- for advice; it's understood that she's been around the block a few times.

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Through a Glass Darkly Review


Good
Penetrate the murkily pretentious title and you'll find that Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly is a truly thoughtful and moving film about human nature and (of course) man's struggle with a higher power.

The premise of Darkly is possibly Bergman's richest setup despite its simplicity. A small family (dad, daughter, son, daughter's husband) vacation on a remote and lonely island. Over the course of their stay, we discover that daughter (Harriet Andersson) is insane -- and dad (Gunnar Björnstrand), a professional writer, is using her trauma as subject matter for his books. Naturally, this culminates in a disaster after the daughter and her husband (Max von Sydow) discover dad's journals.

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