downtownexpress.com
Volume 19 | Issue 30 | December 8 - 14, 2006

Film

Bergman Island
Directed by Marie Nyreröd
The Film Forum
209 West Houston St.
(212 727-8110; filmforum.org)

Swedish Television SVT

Legendary director Ingmar Bergman is the subject of a new documentary at Film Forum, “Bergman Island.”

A giant among directors

By Leonard Quart

As a college student in the ’50s, I often sat in the dark, watching with uncritical awe Ingmar Bergman films like “Sawdust and Tinsel,” “The Seventh Seal,” and “Wild Strawberries.” Along with the masterworks of Fellini, Antonioni, Godard and Truffaut, Bergman’s shabby, emotionally trapped circus people, questing melancholy knights, and remote, civilized doctors were part of my introduction to the European art film.

From the beginning, Bergman saw film not as a well-shaped narrative, but as “a form of art that goes beyond ordinary consciousness, straight to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.” Indeed, no other director could evoke his characters’ psyches and souls with such profound intensity as Bergman. He was the most personal and honest of filmmakers — a man whose work was a direct expression of his guilt, dreams, desires, and confusions. Bergman’s films projected the struggle with the complexities and ambiguities of his own existence, and almost never took refuge in detached intellectual games or constructs. His work was emotionally naked rather than cerebral, centered in the heart and soul rather than the brain. Watching his films 50 years later, they continue to shatter any pieties that I still hold about the self, relationships, and existence itself, something few works of art are ever able to accomplish.

The new documentary film, “Bergman Island,” directed by Marie Nyreröd, is a straightforward, solid work, devoid of stylistic virtuosity. (On the bill with “Bergman Island” there is also a short, whimsical, loving, somewhat self-conscious homage to the great Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini, written by his daughter Isabella Rossellini.)

Besides some clips from Bergman’s films, and some photos and film footage from his personal archives, it primarily consists of Nyreröd asking questions of the still intellectually sharp 88-year-old Bergman. The director now lives alone on the remote Baltic island of Fårö, where there seem to be more sheep and rocks than people. (Six of Bergman’s films including his masterpiece, “Persona” are set on this austerely beautiful, mist-filled, silent island.)

Bergman speaks openly, with a great deal of self-knowledge, to Nyreröd about the role played in his art and life by fear, love, death, music, humiliation and, in his own words, “the intensely erotic nature of film and theater.” He is also a skilled, and even slyly humorous raconteur, who can invoke memories of his early difficulties in the film industry, and of a divided childhood that fluctuated between cruel oppression and loving warmth — the dark and the light — (projected brilliantly in his epic “Fanny and Alexander.”)

For those who have seen Bergman’s films, and read his autobiographical works like “The Magic Lantern,” much of what he says here does not come as a revelation. But we learn that his art is shaped by the death anxiety he has lived with daily, and by his storehouse of experiences — places like his grandmother’s immense apartment in Uppsala, his family house and the nearby park he grew up in Stockholm; objects like grandfather clocks and a baroque chest of drawers; and people like his powerful mother, who withheld her caresses from him.

Bergman does begin to stammer when asked about his affairs with his actresses, but he is a man with a charged, inconstant sexual history. He has had five wives and nine children — seven out of wedlock — and is willing to admit that he’s “family lazy” and though he is not tormented by a “bad conscience,” he has felt pain for the suffering of the wives and children he has been cruel to or deserted. And we see scenes from films like “Scenes From a Marriage” and his final one, “Saraband,” that project a sense of his own egoism and heartlessness.

What takes primacy for Bergman is his work, not only in films, but also for television and the theater (which he loves) where he has directed Ibsen, Strindberg, and other classics. After “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which won the award for Best Comedy at Cannes and was a commercial success, Bergman had free rein to make the films he wanted to make. Nobody intruded on his vision, and he worked constantly, and has, since 1946, directing fifty or so films for cinema and television. He has his demons, but he’s a man who never feels incapable of creating. As he says, he’s “never empty” of material.

One can only feel despair that there will be no more films from this luminous artist. Bergman is a giant whose gift for delving into the hearts of men and women, with all their warts, make most other directors working today look like pygmies.

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