This year marks the centennial of Ingmar Bergman's birth. That's a big deal in all the conventional ways: The life of a major artist hits the century milestone and we mark the occasion, in this case with a touring retrospective that arrives at the Texas Theatre in March. But there's something about Bergman, who died in 2007, that defies the passage of time. His films aren't topical, unless the topic is the interior of the human landscape. Bergman would be 100 come July 14, but Bergman's work is for all time.
The Swedish master can be daunting to the novice. His favorite topics include humiliation, mortality and the burden of reaching for a faith you might not feel. His favorite special effect is the human face; his steady diet of close-ups asks us to probe and feel what's going on beneath the eyes. Those eyes usually belong to some of the most expressive actors cinema has known, from Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson to Max von Sydow and Erland Josephson. Bergman, like Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and others, utilized a regular troupe of actors, and he was a master at tailoring parts to their specific personalities and abilities.
Even among his gargantuan contemporaries of the art house scene that blessed the '50s and '60s — Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, and the French New Wavers, for starters — Bergman stands out as a singular artist.
"Bergman's films struck us all like a mailed fist in the face, stunning not just to look at, but also in their lacerating intimacy," says Peter Cowie, the film historian and Bergman biographer. Cowie was one of those '50s filmgoers whose life was changed by Bergman's masterpiece, The Seventh Seal. "Here was a filmmaker who had the courage to put up on screen his angst and his aspirations, and who had a gift of directing actors that we hadn't seen since the silent era. Metaphysics would never be quite the same after Bergman."
Ah, the M-word. If John Donne was king of the metaphysical poets, Bergman was his cinematic equal. His camera visualized questions of being, existence and reality. The four films showing Thursdays in March at the Texas Theatre provide four different takes on Bergman's thematic obsessions. But they also reveal some of the patterns that appear throughout his work.
The jewel in the Bergman crown remains The Seventh Seal, showing March 1. If you've seen one Bergman film, this is probably it, but it's the definition of a film that stands up to repeat viewing, and it showcases Bergman's timelessness.
Imagine yourself going to the movies back in 1957, when The Seventh Seal was released, and taking in a film about a knight (von Sydow) and his squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) returning home, psychically battered, from the Crusades. The knight engages in an epic chess battle with Death. A young woman is burned at the stake. The superstitious self-flagellate through the streets. Then imagine being taken aback by the dashes of humor and hope for which Bergman is so rarely acknowledged. Rendered in stark black-and-white cinematography, layered with symbolism, The Seventh Seal was a game changer. It marked Bergman's emergence as a major international talent.
The series then moves to the late '60s for a pair of haunting, formally audacious psychological portraits. Persona (1966, showing March 8) is one of those unrepeatable films that defies summarization, as much a thought experiment as a movie. A nurse (Andersson) cares for an actress (Ullmann) who has been struck mute. Confined to a craggy, remote island, the nurse can't stop talking, and the actress, like a succubus, seems to devour her personality. The film reaches its peak when the tension hits its breaking point, the interpersonal lines grow irreparably blurred, and the camera itself seems to break, burning the film into a scorched abstract image. As Anthony Lane wrote recently in The New Yorker, "Persona, unbelievably, lasts for eighty-three minutes, though you may need half a lifetime to get over it."
Two years later, Bergman released Hour of the Wolf (showing March 15), also confined to a craggy, remote island, and also devoted to the fine line between reality and perception. It's the closest Bergman ever came to making a horror movie; look closely and you'll see similarities to 2017's divisive Mother! You'll also see the continuation of a favorite Bergman theme: the humiliation and despair of the artist.
The great von Sydow plays Johan Borg, a tortured painter whose creations come to life on the estate of a neighboring baron (Erland Josephson), or at least in his own mind. Shot through with deep shadows and sinister close-ups, Hour of the Wolf doesn't enjoy a place among the most famous Bergman films, and it doesn't get shown often enough. Kudos to the Texas for painting outside the lines.
The Texas series concludes with the only color film in the quartet, 1972's Cries and Whispers (showing March 22). And, oh my, what color. Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is dying, slowly and painfully, of cancer as her two sisters (Ullmann and Ingrid Thulin) squabble and care for her on their family estate. The scenes don't fade to black; they fade to bright red, matching the décor of the ornate family home. Even more so than most Bergman films, Cries and Whispers pushes the limits of emotional intensity and reminds us that Ullmann's face is one for the ages: seductive one second, cold and sneering the next, always full of thought and feeling. The film earned cinematographer Sven Nykvist the first of his two Oscars.
Four films are but a pittance of the Bergman catalogue, but any chance to see his work on the big screen is to be savored. Bergman cracked open the art of film and invited us to look deep inside his psyche. It's not always pretty in there, but no filmmaker has offered up his soul in quite the same way.