At one time, Ingmar Bergman’s name was known by any serious student of film. With the mystifying collapse of foreign film as a viable market during the 80s and 90s, Bergman’s legacy is losing its potency. Part of this can be traced to the lessening of his impact through parody which began, ironically, with one of his biggest fans, Woody Allen. Allen wrote several satirical takeoffs of Bergman and opened a floodgate of criticism that the Swedish director took himself too seriously.
Another criticism of Bergman is that his movies are too dark and depressing. This is the case with many, but at the same time Bergman was also capable of making films that could cause audiences to laugh out loud. Perhaps his first truly huge international success was Smiles of the Summer Night (and the title actually is translated into “the” and not “a”) which is a comedy of manners and morals that often produces loud laughs.
My favorite Bergman comedy is The Devil’s Eye, in which Don Juan is sent from hell to seduce a virgin because Satan has a sty in his eye caused by the fact that a girl is about to get married while still a virgin. Just the description alone is cause enough for a smile, and Bergman delivers more than just smiles.
This is one film that I regularly view on tvmuse alternative and one that I can watch only to see Bergman onscreen as he has this aura to draw you into his performance and his razor sharp comic timing deserves an article of its own.Still, Bergman’s reputation rests upon his dark and dreary and “difficult” films, among which The Seventh Seal, Persona and Cries and Whispers are perhaps the most famous. The Seventh Seal is probably his most famous film, and the one most often parodied.
It features the character of Death engaging in a chess match with a knight returning to his plague-infested homeland after battling in the Crusades. Sure, there’s opportunity for satire, but this is one movie you won’t forget. And it’s not nearly as dark as it sounds; in fact this film is actually one of the funniest dramas Bergman ever wrote. The character of the knight’s squire Jons is actually, arguably, Bergman’s funniest creation ever. He is a counterpoint to the dramatic contest being held between Death and the knight. His opinions and views on life differ substantially from the knight’s and therein lies the humor.
Humor, admittedly, is difficult to find in Cries and Whispers. Truly, this is an exemplar of Ingmar Bergman at his darkest and most depressing. And yet it’s an amazing movie, one you shouldn’t miss. Be forewarned: some versions of this movie excise what it probably Bergman’s most disturbing scene, in which a female character cuts her vagina and then brings her blood-soaked fingers to her lips.
It sounds disgusting, but the movie suffers from its lack. Just about everything in an Ingmar Bergman movie is there for a reason and taking anything out is going to have an effect. The plot of this film, if you will, concerns a dying woman and her sisters. But no amount of plot summary can prepare you for the spectacular images and profoundly moving story that underlie it.
Another of the criticisms of Bergman is his difficulty. What exactly do his films mean? Perhaps this stems from the fact that so many of his films contain scenes that might nor might not be dreams. The premier example of this is Persona. Many polls taken in the 70s and 80s named Persona as one of the ten best films of all time.
Many also contemplate that it may well be one of the ten most difficult films of all time. Once again, a plot summary cannot suffice: An actress chooses to become mute and a nurse is hired to look after her. But what happens within that plot is astounding, profound, and, yes, often confusing to the point of frustration.
The beginning of the film shows a little boy lying down and a bizarre series of images playing across the screen. The little boy plays no significant part in the movie from that point. At one point we see the same scene repeated from the point of view of both actresses. At another we see a seduction scene that is probably a dream….probably. The most amazing scene in the film, or at least the most famous, is when the film actually begins to burn. Yes, the film burns on the screen and the movie stops. And then begins again.
What does it mean?
Heck, entire books have been written trying to answer that question. I’m sure not going to try to answer it. But that may be my whole point. Today’s movies are so simplistic and obvious that it’s hard to imagine anyone having trouble figuring out what they are supposed to be about. And we see to be completely okay with that. I’m not suggesting that all films should be as difficult as Ingmar Bergman films. But wouldn’t it be nice if at least one or two a year were?
If you are tired of watching movies where you figure out the ending before the opening credits are over, go to a video store or use your online renting service to check out the great films of a master filmmaker. At the peak of his career, there was little doubt that he was one of the best three best directors in the world.
I say he still is, even though he hasn’t directed a movie since the early 80s.