Bergman for Breakfast (Part 2 of 3)

Loren RossonIn my previous post I started a countdown of my favorite Ingmar Bergman films, and today it rolls on.

But before I continue, here’s a wonderful quote from Time, which paid tribute when Bergman died in 2007.

“Bergman was a surgeon who operated on himself. He cut into his own fears, analyzed his failings, perhaps sought forgiveness through art. His films seemed like primal screams, picking at the scabs of his psyche. They spoke not just to the self-absorption of the therapy generation, but to the human quest to discover the worst and the strongest about ourselves, to make that journey into the darkness with no guide but our need to know.”

10. The Virgin Spring. 1960. The same year Hitchcock gave us the first slasher with Psycho, Bergman gave us rape revenge. But unlike the modern formula that often glorifies retribution, The Virgin Spring puts the screws to it. The father’s revenge is portrayed as ugly and self-righteous, and this is what keeps this classic above American copycats like The Last House on the Left. It refuses to allow us moral holidays. The father is almost an anti-Charles Bronson, atoning for his revenge by dedicating a holy shrine on the spot his daughter was killed. The film’s enduring power matches Psycho’s, and of course both Hitchcock and Bergman have been abused in imitations, spin-offs, and remakes of their artistry. Revenge thrillers have become cliche, but The Virgin Spring retains a fresh raw power after five decades.

9. The Magician. 1958. A film based on the wisdom that “deception is so common that he who tells the truth as a rule is the greatest liar” is an eye-catcher from the start. All things considered, I don’t think The Magician intends the often-supposed clash between science and the supernatural, rather honesty and deception, and in this case neither reason nor superstition wins. For all his fraud, the magician doesn’t come off too badly, and he’s even given the stamp of royal approval at the end. The film suggests that humanity needs its self-deceptions in order to stay healthy. Besides that, it’s a great showcasing of some of the most colorful characters in any of Bergman’s films, and I think it’s probably his most underrated.

8. Persona. 1966. Many consider this Bergman’s ultimate masterpiece, and it’s certainly been analyzed to death. I think its real significance lies in what it represents at a critical turning point in Bergman’s career. Persona was forged in the fires of his mental breakdown, and from here on out his strategies changed, especially in the way he began treating bisexuality seriously. The pre-1966 films typically resigned heterosexual couples to bleak endings; now he felt free to engineer the complete destruction of these relationships (as in Shame and Hour of the Wolf, covered in tomorrow’s post) and veer off into homoeroticism. In the case of Persona, the two women go beyond intimacy so that they merge metaphysically, signaled in the famous shot where the halves of their faces are combined. Alma craves Elizabeth’s identity as much as her affection, and I think that’s what makes Persona the legendary experiment it is.

7. Sawdust and Tinsel. 1953. Here Bergman pours his personal guilt, romantic betrayals, and artistic dissatisfaction into a cruel parable. It’s such a nasty piece of work, and so refreshingly honest, that the autobiography has been obvious to many critics. The themes are sexual power and degradation, centered around the characters of Albert and Anne–perhaps my favorite couple in cinematic history–who hurt each other, despise each other, cheat on each other, yet love each other as they’re unable to escape a harsh career. Their world of the circus (sawdust) is humiliating like that of the theater (tinsel), and in this film, those worlds brutally collide. Like The Magician it’s been underrated, though seems to have undergone something of a reassessment in recent years. I catch new and hidden meanings each time I see it.

6. The Silence. 1963. The third part of the faith trilogy suggests that there’s no solution to the riddle of God’s existence, and yet the search for a solution remains important. The setting is a foreign country that gets few visitors, and where tanks roll down the streets ready to fire at a moment’s notice. The hotel is something out of a paranoid dream state, with the hyperfriendly old porter and the room of circus dwarves, all of whom speak gibberish. The theme of noncommunication pervades on every level, carrying “silence” to its symbolic extreme. The visiting sisters resent each other and retreat into their own silences or dysfunctions: sexual promiscuity (Anna) and alcoholism (Ester). By contrast, the boy Johann almost represents an angelic version of humanity, since he can interact with all of the hotel’s grotesqueries with delightful naivete, even despite the language barriers. Of the faith trilogy (see #12 and #11 in yesterday’s post), this final part is the most unnerving, and a true work of art.

Next up: Numbers 5-1.

About Loren Rosson

Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.

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