Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni died on the same day this week. Two supreme eyes. One huge tear. What a tragedy for film lovers!
Bergman was Sweden's greatest filmmaker of the 20th century -- and so far, of the 21st as well. Antonioni was one of Italy's greatest (with Fellini, Rossellini, Visconti, De Sica, Leone and Bertolucci).
Neither man was as dazzlingly virtuosic as Orson Welles, as polished and popular as Alfred Hitchcock, as robustly humane as Jean Renoir. Yet, between them, they changed the face of world cinema -- helped make it smarter, subtler, more profound and more beautiful. They gave us Wild Strawberries and L'Avventura, Persona and Blowup, The Passenger and Fanny and Alexander.
Remarkably, they both kept making superior films for more than half a century. Each began in the 1940s and each was still active in the 2000s, Bergman with Saraband and Antonioni with Eros.
Yet Bergman accomplished something no other cinematic genius could quite match. Even more than Antonioni, he survived, directing masterpieces in his 20s and into his 80s. He made personal, intimate films for 60 years, avoiding most of the usual compromises. Almost off-handedly, at the same time, he managed to be Sweden's finest and most celebrated theater director as well.
The young Bergman was a pastor's son who revolted again his father's strict morality and found salvation instead in the plays of August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen, and in the plays and screenplays he later wrote, often inspired by them (Wild Strawberries, Hour of the Wolf, Shame). Decades later, the older Bergman found God again, but a more merciful one, in the grandeur and pity of his last semi-autobiographical screenplays (The Best Intentions, Private Confessions, Faithless).
Bergman, a wizard of theater and film, found, in his native land, some of the world's best actors (Liv Ullmann, Max Von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand), and one of the greatest cinematographers (Sven Nykvist). He tackled demanding themes, wrote superb parts for actors and, with, with Nykvist, endowed his best films with an almost hypnotic visual brilliance. Shooting a new film almost every year, while also directing several plays each year for his theater troupes, Bergman stretched the boundaries of his dramas, especially in the soaring long-form works originally made for television: Scenes from a Marriage, Face to Face and his greatest work, Fanny and Alexander. In all his films, but especially those from Winter Light on, he became the great explorer of the human face, the lord of Faro, his private island (where most of his late films were shot) and the master portraitist of personas on screen (Persona, A Passion, Cries and Whispers).
In his last decades, Bergman sometimes wrote screenplays for other directors: The Best Intentions for Bille August, Sunday's Children for his son Daniel and Private Confessions and Faithless for his supreme lover/collaborator Liv Ullmann, It was in those works that we can see clearly that he was not just a great director, but a great writer as well, a playwright/screenwriter of genius, perception and deep compassion. These last works were often semi-autobiographical and they rivaled Eugene O'Neill's magnificent late plays in their unsparing honesty, intensity and utter perfection.
Finally, Bergman directed two last films, the In the Presence of a Clown and Saraband, and they were as powerful and daring as any he'd made before.
Throughout his life and unrivaled career, he was dismissed by some critics as arty, pretentious and too apolitical. But those judgments say far more about his critics than about his work. The young Bergman loved film noir (especially the thrillers of Raoul Walsh and Michael Curtiz), and he once called western movie master John Ford the greatest living director. He was no snob, and he could be scathing when he detected snobbery in others.
He was my favorite filmmaker -- and only partly because my maternal grandparents were Swedish, and I loved the rhythm of his actors, his speeches. Through the years, I met some of those actors, including Liv, Max and Bibi, but never Bergman himself. That dark, smiling, brilliant presence, locked away on Faro, eluded me.
But in a way, I've always known him, ever since the first time I saw Wild Strawberries as a college freshman and fell in love with Bibi as Sara. Since then, I've loved his films and his people with the special intensity of a youthful crush that grows and deepens throughout a lifetime -- and that never dies. He never will, and his movies never will.
Sawdust and Tinsel (A)
1953, Unavailable on American DVD
A Germanic romantic nightmare, set in a circus. The seaside scene paralyzes you.
Smiles of a Summer Night (A)
1955, Criterion Collection
One of the two films, triumphant at Cannes, which made Bergman world famous: his scintillating period sex comedy on a Swedish white night.
The Seventh Seal (A)
1956, Criterion Collection
His second Cannes winner: the great gloomy medieval epic with a knight (Von Sydow) matching wits with Death.
Wild Strawberries (A)
1957, Criterion Collection
Victor Sjostrom, the finest Swedish filmmaker before Bergman, plays Isak Borg, a cold old professor whose life passes before him in dreams and nightmares on a journey to academic honors.
Winter Light (A)
1962, Criterion Collection
Gunnar Bjornstrand is the minister who has lost his parishioners, his vocation and his faith in God.
Liv Ullmann is actress Elizabeth Vogler, who has turned silent; Bibi Andersson is her nurse Alma, who can't stop talking. Their faces and personas merge unforgettably.
Devastating anti-war parable, with Max and Liv.
Cries and Whispers (A)
1972, Criterion Collection
Liv, Ingrid Thulin and Harriet Andersson are three sisters facing love, hatred and death.
Scenes from a Marriage (A)
1973, Criterion Collection
Liv and Erland Josephson are a married couple who pass through hell toward their separate peace.
Fanny and Alexander (A)
1983, Criterion Collection
Bergman's supreme work: a family epic, set amid a war between religion and theater observed by two children, in a huge theatrical family near the century's turn. A towering masterpiece, tender and majestic, scathing and fantastic, flawed only by the absence of Liv Ullmann and Max Von Sydow in roles that seem perfect for them in the otherwise flawless big ensemble cast.
BERGMAN BOX SETS
The Ingmar Bergman Special Edition DVD Collection (A)
Following Bergman's official "Trilogy," the first four films here are a sort of unofficial teratology, with characters, casts and themes repeated and amplified from film to film. Forgetting the unfortunate German expressionist Serpent's Egg, this box, including the commentaries, represents Bergman at his peak.
Hour of the Wolf (A-)
A Passion (The Passion of Anna) (A)
The Serpent's Egg (B-)
The Ingmar Bergman Collection Documentaries (A)
The Bergman Trilogy (A)
1960-63, Criterion Collection
The relationship between man and God is the triple theme of these "chamber drama" films, but somehow never becomes overblown or overbearing. Winter Light is a Bergman favorite; The Silence one of his biggest popular hits.
Through a Glass Darkly (A-)
Winter Light (A)
The Silence (A)
OTHER BERGMAN CLASSICS
Summer Interlude (A)
A lovely romance in a world of ballet.
Summer with Monika (A)
An ultimate "bad girl" romance, with Harriet Andersson as Monika, our summer love forever.
The Magician (B)
Von Sydow as a silent mountebank; a bit like a Bergman parody, but lovable all the same.
The Magic Flute (A)
Mozart's masterpiece, in the most magical of all opera films.
Face to Face (B+)
Ullmann's lacerating performance as a psychiatrist suffering breakdown anchors this traumatic classic.
Autumn Sonata (A-)
Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman in a terrific actress' duel/love match as musician mother and her wounded daughter.
Bergman's beautiful farewell: a chamber piece with Liv and Erland.
Early Bergman (B-)
1944-49, Eclipse/Criterion Collection
These five films include only one real classic, Sjoberg's Torment, with Mai Zetterling, which Bergman scripted. But they're fascinating juvenilia for anyone who reveres their maker. Some of them are even sometimes bad.
Alf Sjoberg, 1944
Bergman's first script.
Bergman's first feature direction.
Port of Call (C+)
To Joy (B-)