|A still from Persona (left). Ingmar Bergman (right).|
Ingmar Bergman, who would have turned hundred on July 14, has a super-serious image. To someone who has never seen a Bergman film, just the names that make up the great Swedish director’s filmography can come off sounding a tad intense. To wit: the first feature he helped write was called Torment and his own directorial debut in 1946 was called Crisis. Future titles included It Rains On Our Love (1946), Prison, Thirst (both 1949), This Can’t Happen Here (1950), Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), The Devil’s Eye (1960), Hour of the Wolf, Shame (both 1968) and Cries and Whispers (1972).
Alright, I’m cherry-picking a bit here: Bergman’s 60-odd films (many made for television) did also include Smiles of a Summer Night and Summer with Monika. (The summer allusion, in a Scandinavian country with long dark winters, isn’t too complicated). There was even a film called To Joy. But those are the exceptions. Roll around on your tongue the names of the 1961-1963 films in his ‘trilogy’: Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence and you imagine an austere world, with depressing things unfolding in a bleak, wintry, black-and-white landscape. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
Titles, of course, are the least of it. Perhaps best known outside film-nerdistan for
And yet Bergman was rarely ponderous. He was too personal to be that. His films plumbed the depths of the human soul with an excavatory zeal, with the family often emerging as the stage on which sexual and other longings were dramatically played out. So Through a Glass Darkly, in which a troubled young woman envisions god as a spider, is also about her flirtatious, eventually incestuous relationship with her brother, while the fraught relationship between the sisters in The Silence is founded on a comparison of their fundamentally different approaches to sex. Cries and Whispers, which might be among the most intense cinematic portraits ever made of relationships between sisters, is also a powerful film about sex and shame.
“The manifestation of sex is very important... for above all, I don’t want to make merely intellectual films. I want audiences to feel, to sense my films. This to me is much more important than their understanding them,” Bergman told
In his affecting, inscrutable 1966 film
Persona is also a good entry-point into the genre that was, for many years, Bergman’s métier: a psychological unravelling that could take you to the brink of horror. Exploring the inner workings of the human mind, through dreams and fantasies, can often reveal our ugliest selves. Bergman’s cinema is an unforgiving mirror, making us see how we are most cruel to those we love. And sometimes, of course, we cannot love at all. In films as varied as Persona, Wild Strawberries and
That bishop is as close to a villain as Bergman ever created. Made in 1982, Fanny and Alexander’s rather performative contrast between the pleasure-seekers and the self-punishers was a shift of register for him. Bergman’s cinema showed again and again how thin the line was between attraction and repulsion, pleasure and pain. The point, he seemed to suggest, was while knowing that, to continue to seek out experience; to feel whatever one did with passion.
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 15 July 2018.