"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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The mood here is a mix of solemnity and sensuality -- the sisters' relationships are by turns abusive, loving, and tormented -- but Bergman's emphasis on deep reds and blacks throughout emphasizes the split between Marie and Karin much too formally. Moreover, the hushed, interior tone fails to generate much drama, and the tension never explodes as it does in a much better Bergman '70s drama, Autumn Sonata. But it has the benefit of some tremendous performances, particularly from Ullmann and Kari Sylwan, who plays the family's indomitable caretaker, Anna. And Sven Nykvist's cinematography, particularly in the exterior shots, have a pastoral, painterly grace.
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The plot is simplicity itself. The Rosenbergs (played by Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow) are a youngish couple enjoying average happiness on an island that's part of a larger, unnamed country. (The fact that Bergman chooses not to specify the film's setting, nor to clarify the conflict that follows, contributes to the film's surreal yet universal feel.) Both are musicians; they farm a little, too, and they drive their ailing truck into town to sell their produce. It's not an idyllic existence, exactly; the two are not above bickering, for instance, and in their discontented moments they may feel that they've settled for something. But it's essentially (and believably) a happy life.
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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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Though Ingrid and Ingmar Bergman aren't related, their pairing on a movie set was a long-anticipated event -- each of their careers were marked by a certain Scandinavian iciness -- and it turned out to be a wholly successful one. Ingrid has a stubborn, indomitable attitude in the opening of the film that turns out to be only selfish shallowness - she resents being in the presence of Helena, and seems anxious to get away from Eva, who she always felt fell short of expectations. As each reveal the losses they've suffered and the slights they've felt, it slowly becomes clear that resentment has built up between them for years. But the brutality of Eva and Charlotte's final fight doesn't come from the noise they make - it's in the way their words cut. "You should be hidden away and kept from doing others harm," Eva tells her mother towards the end, and it seems to annihilate her.
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Played by Bergman regulars Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann, the couple quickly -- inside an hour and a half -- comes completely apart as von Sydow's visions become indistinguishable from reality. Hour of the Wolf has been described as Bergman's only horror film and that's not far from the mark, with creepy characters and imagery pervading the entire second half of the movie.
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And then it kind of vanished. That's not to say that you couldn't, with some effort, get your hands on a copy of the American release. But Bergman's original vision - the five-hour Scenes - joined the company of fabled films, such as von Stroheim's Greed, that lived a high life in film criticism while going largely unseen by film enthusiasts. Criterion, with its new, three-disc DVD edition of the original TV series, plus the American theatrical version, restores a great film to the shelves.
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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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Bergman showed a penchant for family drama with Fanny and Alexander and Wild Strawberries, among others. He enjoys mixing the imaginary world of his characters with their reality. This can lead to a deeper emotional entanglement with the characters; it's human nature to reflect and react based on internalized stimuli. Unfortunately for Faithless, Bergman is revisiting territory he excelled in some 40 years ago, without shedding any new light on his subjects.
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