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Ingmar Bergman 1918-2007

Posted by Wesley Morris  July 30, 2007 07:51 AM

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The challenging Swedish master Ingmar Bergman has died, at 89. His true subject never changed over the years: the depth of art to capture and comment on the philosophy of life, be it through portraits of death or marriage. His 50 or so films remained devoted to a high seriousness that defined a kind of European filmmaking to the rest of the world.

He started making films in the mid-1940s and his body of work contains some of the most indelible images to appear in the movies. Frequently working the brilliant cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Bergman became a consummate visual filmmaker, using the frame to transcend merely photographing his actors. By 1967's "Persona," he was seeing deep inside them, using images to commit a kind of psychoanalysis. Beginning with that film, Bergman had begun making full-blown masterpieces.

I never cared for most of the films he'd made before this. They claimed to be about emotion and human struggle, but there was so much artifice and sleepy chic in movies like 1955's "Smiles of a Summer Night" and 1959's "The Virgin Spring," even the iconic symbolism of 1957's "The Seventh Seal" seems frivolous now. He was making movies as the French New Wave arrived in the 1960s and watching Godard, Truffaut, and the rest, it was hard to warm to Bergman, since the French were showing us what fun the movies could be. Their films were cool. Bergman's were cold.

"Persona," though, was a breakthrough. Bergman didn't just turn inward, he began examining the artistic process, which to a great extent meant he began examining himself: his work, his relationships, how art can be both all-consuming and yet never quite enough. His movies were awake with emotional action. From 1966 to 1973, it was an impressive run. The pictures - "Persona," "Hour of the Wolf," "Shame," "The Rite," "A Passion," "Cries and Whispers," "Scenes from a Marriage" - were or felt acutely autobiographical, marked by honesty, obsession, and eroticism and starring a revolving cast of great actors (Liv Ullman, Max Von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, and Gunnar Bjornstrand. He'd begun letting the world (war, dysfunction, psychology) into his movies. And his characters craved human connection even at the risk of self-destruction.

And yet these movie still have their didactic lapses. The mind tends to think in binaries (mine does, anyway) and I always saw Bergman, with his interest in dreaminess and atmosphere and erotics, as the anti-Fellini. Fellini didn't just want to take you to the carnival, he wanted to be the carnival. Bergman wanted to deconstruct the carnival until it looked like something else. Still, there were rewards in Bergman's approach. If Fellini made beautiful movies about the soul from the heart, Bergman made beautiful movies about the soul for the head. And the head is a fertile place for a Bergman film to live.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

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