Ingmar Bergman

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The Seventh Seal Review

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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Cries And Whispers Review

This 1972 feature by Ingmar Bergman follows the chill, tangled relationship between three sisters: Agnes (Harriett Anderson), Karin (Ingrid Thulin), and Marie (Liv Ullmann). The three have reunited in the manor they grew up in, but the circumstances are grim: Agnes is dying, and her slow decline exposes the long-hidden feelings of guilt and jealousy among them. Flashbacks reveal how intimidated Agnes felt by her mother (also played by Ullmann), Marie's self-destructive attempts to seduce the family doctor, and Karin's self-laceration within her loveless marriage.

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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Persona Review

One of Ingmar Bergman's most beloved films has Liv Ullmann as an actress who mysteriously clams up and stops speaking in the middle of a performance. She doesn't start again, so she's sequestered at home with a very young and chatty nurse, who does the talking for both of them. Her youth and sub-surface psychosis bring about strange conversation topics, until things (of course) come to a head. Despite some slow going, Persona is unlike any other film you're likely to see. Give it a whirl.

Shame Review

Most of us in America never felt the recent war in Iraq in a tangible, day-to-day way. There are those of us who lost loved ones, of course, but what I refer to here is the daily, nagging toll that war takes on all of those - military and civilian - living in its midst. We do not, say, suffer interruptions in our fresh water supply, nor are we compelled to guard our speech and conduct or to stockpile food and supplies. Part of the genius of Ingmar Bergman's great 1968 film Shame (now available on DVD) is that it brings these stark, quotidian horrors - and those that these escalate into - home to the viewer. That alone would be an achievement, but Shame moves in deeper waters still: It shows, in the bleakest and most uncompromising terms, that the worst that war has to offer is the wounds it inflicts on the human mind. Together with René Clément's Forbidden Games (1952) and Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937), it stands as one of the great pacifist statements of the modern day.

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 Review

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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Autumn Sonata Review

At its core Autumn Sonata is little more than a movie about an argument. Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman, in her second-to-last role), a world-famous concert pianist, has arrived at the home of her daughter Eva (Liv Ullmann), who lives a modest life with her parish priest husband, Viktor (Halvar Bjork), and takes care of her terminally ill sister Helena (Lena Nyman). Despite everyone's efforts to be mannered and accepting - this is an Ingmar Bergman film, after all - Charlotte's arrival cracks Eva's long-standing resentments wide open.

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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Hour Of The Wolf Review

Hour of the Wolf is hardly Ingmar Bergman's best-known work nor his best, but it at least deserves a wider audience than history has granted it. One of his most surreal and simple tales, Wolf follows a couple who live on a desolate island (why do Bergman's characters always choose to live in the worst possible conditions?). He's a painter, she's a doting wife. Oh, and he's well on his way to going insane, with all manner of violent visions crashing through his mind.

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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Scenes From A Marriage Review

Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage began as a six-part Swedish television program that aired throughout much of Scandinavia in 1973. The series was created at one of those times when Bergman was in something of a creative slump, but in a career of comebacks, Scenes from a Marriage constituted another. The series was such a hit, reports Bergman scholar Peter Cowie, that the one-hour episodes emptied the streets of cities such as Copenhagen during its weekly time slots. American distributors were soon clamoring for a theatrical version for release here, and Bergman responded in 1974 with a trimmed-down, 169-minute edit that went on to win the National Society of Film Critics Award for best picture of its year. In 1977, PBS aired the entire series unedited, and Scenes from a Marriage took its rightful place among Bergman's established masterpieces.

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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The Silence (1963) Review

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

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

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

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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Fanny And Alexander Review

It's much more about young Alexander than his little sister Fanny, and although it's best remembered as Ingmar Bergman's last film (it wasn't, technically, seeing as he's still alive and making movies today), might it also be his warmest film as well? Developed, like Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, for Swedish television, and released in a shortened theatrical version later, 1982's Fanny and Alexander is a rich and surprisingly peaceful coda to one of film's most illustrious careers.

When I say "peaceful" I don't necessarily mean "reconciled." In Fanny and Alexander Bergman sums up the themes of a body of work in which the director often brought audiences to the edge of the abyss and invited them to contemplate the void; and here, using a child as his stand-in, Bergman illustrates very clearly how it is that this void found its genesis and why it can never quite be filled. The difference is that the dilemma of existence in Fanny and Alexander is shown through a child's eyes (Bergman seldom used children elsewhere) and it's suffused with the magic of childhood curiosity and discovery. The child, like Bergman, will grow to be an artist; the director says that tragedies like those that befall Alexander are a necessary part of that.

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Faithless Review

Liv Ullman may get the directing credit, but every line in Faithless is stamped Ingmar Bergman (who wrote the script). Between the immoral souls of the characters twitching with desires they can't control and the extended two and a half hours to endure, who else could it be? (Bergman's original Fanny and Alexander was close to six hours long, though the American version is two and a half).

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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Saraband Review

Looking at Ingmar Bergman's revealing close-ups of actors, his deftness at drawing out powerful moments of humanity between two actors, and his use of space within the frame that lends depth to the living rooms and bedrooms his characters inhabit -- look at these things throughout his latest project, Saraband, and ask yourself, "What else is new?" Bergman has been perfecting his craft for over 50 years, and his latest offering is a sequel or epilogue to his Scenes from a Marriage (1974). Even as you're amazed at Bergman's commitment to his craft, you're also wondering whether he's truly offering anything new.

Watching Saraband, occasionally amazed by its power and beauty, I also grew frustrated because it's his same long, slow walk towards personal annihilation, this time simply reprising the characters of contemplative Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and crotchety Johan (Erland Josephson), an ex-married couple that may still have feelings for each other. Predictably, Ullmann and Josephson are brilliant, and suggest tremendous intimacy and depth, humor and hurt. Marianne shows up at Johan's cottage, not quite knowing why. He's still the same mouthy, sensitive, soul-constricted (and often funny) curmudgeon he was 30 years ago. She's still Liv Ullmann, Bergman's luminous object within the frame.

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