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Ingmar Bergman (1918 - )
Occupation: Director, screenwriter /Born: July 14, 1918, Uppsala, Sweden

 

Universally regarded as one of the great masters of modern cinema, Bergman has often concerned himself with spiritual and psychological conflicts. His work has evolved in distinct stages over four decades, while his visual style&emdash;intense, intimate, complex&emdash;has explored the vicissitudes of passion with a mesmerizing cinematic rhetoric. His prolific output tends to return to and elaborate on recurrent images, subjects and techniques. Like the Baroque composers, Bergman works on a small scale, finding invention in theme and variation.

Bergman works primarily in the chamber cinema genre, although there are exceptions, such as the journey narrative of WILD STRAWBERRIES (1957) and the family epic of FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1983). Chamber cinema encloses space and time, permitting the director to focus on mise-en-scène and to pay careful attention to metaphoric detail and visual rhythm. Perhaps his most expressive technique is his use of the facial close-up. For Bergman, the face, along with the hand, allows the camera to reveal the inner aspects of human emotion. His fascination with the female face can be seen most strikingly in PERSONA (1966) and CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972). In his autobiography, Bergman claimed that he was always trying to generate his mother's face; hence, a psychological and aesthetic need are realized in this cinematic signature.

Of the early period, WILD STRAWBERRIES stands out for its narrative invention in a fluid manipulation of flashbacks, reveries and dream sequences. Its penetrating psychological investigation of the closing of the life cycle established Bergman's preoccupation with the relationship between desire, loss, guilt, compassion, restitution and celebration. SAWDUST AND TINSEL (1953)/NAKED NIGHT, more allegorical than WILD STRAWBERRIES, is likewise designed around a journey motif of existential crisis. In contrast, the Mozartian SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT (1955) displays Bergman's romantic, comic sensibility. The early period concludes with two symbolic works, THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) and THE VIRGIN SPRING (1959), both set in the Middle Ages. The extreme long shot in THE SEVENTH SEAL of Death leading the peasants in silhouette across the horizon now forms part of the iconography of modern cinema.

The second stage of Bergman's cinematic evolution shifts to the chamber style. Intense spiritual and psychological themes are explored in the "Silence" trilogy (THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY, 1962, WINTER LIGHT, 1962, THE SILENCE, 1963), and in THE SHAME (1968), HOUR OF THE WOLF (1968) and THE PASSION OF ANNA (1969), three films all set on the island of Faro. With its dialectical editing and expressive compositions, THE SILENCE is considered one of Bergman's most artfully structured films. THE PASSION OF ANNA, with its innovative application of red motifs, marked Bergman's first use of color photography.

Between these two trilogies came PERSONA (1966), a work many critics consider Bergman's masterpiece. PERSONA shares a similar look and ambience with the Faro trilogy, and has direct links with THE SILENCE in its focus on the antagonistic relationship between two women. Yet, with its distinctly avant-garde style and rhythm, it stands apart from any other of Bergman's films. Ostensibly concerned with identity crisis and the role reversal of a nurse and her mentally ill patient, the subtext of the film explores the nature of the cinematic apparatus itself. The narrative is framed by opening and closing shots of a film strip, projector and light, which lead into and out of the figure of a young boy. With his directorial hand, the boy conjures up a gigantic close-up of the female face. In a now celebrated sequence, the two faces of the female protagonists dissolve into one. (The figure of the precocious, magical child, previously seen in THE SILENCE, would later reappear in the autobiographical FANNY AND ALEXANDER, 1983.)

Sadomasochistic behavior, along with problems of role reversal and denied maternity, form the tortured core of both PERSONA and CRIES AND WHISPERS, the masterwork of the late period. In contrast to the spare decor, sharp black and white photography and disjunctive editing of PERSONA, CRIES AND WHISPERS is a 19th-century Gothic period-piece featuring rich colors, draped, theatrical decor and muted dissolve editing. The film revolves around three sisters, one of whom, Agnes, is dying, and their maid, Anna. Bergman evokes religious iconography, with each of the three sisters representing various theological concepts. The dying Agnes, set in cruciform position, returns as a resurrected savior/prophet. The exquisite Pietà/birth shot of Agnes and the Maid, as well as the revolutionary dissolve red-outs, are highlights in this brutal and beautiful film.

Even the minor films of Bergman's later period, such as FACE TO FACE (1976), AUTUMN SONATA (1978) and FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES (1980) continue to explore and refine recurrent themes and techniques. In the underrated THE TOUCH (1971), Bergman examines the theme of marriage, with an inventive subtext of the Persephone myth, in a visually expansive way that distinguishes it from the more conventional SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1973). The cycle of Bergman's work appropriately concludes with FANNY AND ALEXANDER, an epic of family romance, touched with elements of fairy tale, horror and ghost story. All the preoccupations of Bergman's extraordinary career flow through the imagery, action and stylization of the film. Continuing his exploration of family relationships, Bergman drew inspiration from the marriage of his own parents to write the autobiographical screenplay for THE BEST INTENTIONS (1992), which Bergman entrusted to director Bille August after announcing his retirement from filmmaking.

As an artist, Bergman pays homage to music and theater in general, to Bach, Mozart and Strindberg in particular. His work seems a synthesis of the internalized Swedish sensibility and harsh Scandinavian landscape, yet he speaks to a universal vision of human passion. Although apparently not influenced by other filmmakers, with the possible exception of Carl Dreyer, Bergman himself has had a wide-ranging influence on a generation of filmmakers. A unique and powerful presence, his genius has made an extraordinary contribution to the art of the cinema.

 

 

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