by Ty Burr
Ingmar Bergman, the protean master filmmaker whose work opened the cinema to profound spiritual and philosophic inquiry, died Monday morning at his home on the island of Faro in Sweden. He was 89.
Arguably the most daring and artistically uncompromising of the writer/directors who transformed world cinema in the years following World War II, Bergman introduced a new seriousness of purpose to the medium. Simply put, he was to movies what the Existentialists were to literature: A questing and questioning voice that would not be denied. He took the human interior as his landscape, a psychic Monument Valley that none before him had put on celluloid and few afterwards captured so well.
Bergman’s key films probe the absence of God and man’s search for meaning; initially despairing, they grew over the course of his career to be filled with bitter, clear-eyed hope. “Wild Strawberries” (1957) is a young man’s movie about old age. By contrast, “Saraband” (2003), Bergman’s last completed work and a film that revisits the agonized couple of “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973), extends a bleak forgiveness toward humanity that feels ageless.
Similarly, the director evolved from the young enfant terrible of Swedish stage and screen, known for ripping phones off walls when he didn’t get his creative way, to a demanding but benevolent father figure who encouraged his actors to improvise their way toward moments of truth. His artistic “family” included such regular performers as Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, Erland Josephson, Ingrid Thulin, and Gunnar Björnstrand.
Bergman’s other great subject was the battle between men and women, portrayed with scathing honesty in such films as “A Passion” (1969) and “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973). Key to many of those works was the actress Liv Ullmann, with whom the director had a romantic relationship and a daughter, Linn Ullmann. Bergman married five times, had numerous liaisons, and fathered nine acknowledged children. His insights into human relationships came from personal experience, and his most damning conclusions often stemmed from his own actions.
After an apprenticeship in the Swedish film industry immediately following the war, Bergman burst upon the international scene in the late 1950s, winning festival awards for “Strawberries,” the wisely comic “Smiles of a Summer Night” (1955), and the dark, allegorical “The Seventh Seal” (1957).
It is two scenes from “Seal” – a hooded Death (Bengt Ekerot) playing chess with a wandering knight (Max von Sydow) and, later, leading a representative daisy-chain of humanity across a mountain ridge – that remain the popular culture’s shorthand snapshots for “Ingmar Bergman.” Much parodied and hugely influential, those early works unleashed a wave of soul-searching creativity among European and American filmmakers. The careers of such diverse U.S. talents as Woody Allen, John Cassavetes, Robert Altman, and Francis Ford Coppola would be vastly different without his example.
In the 2005 book “Woody Allen on Woody Allen,” the director discusses what drew him to the Swedish filmmaker’s films: “Bergman developed a grammar, a vocabulary to express ... inner conflicts brilliantly. Part of this grammar was the use of the close-up in a way it hadn't been used before. Very close and very long, long, long static close-ups. The effect is so exciting because it's infused with his special genius.”
Starting with “Persona” (1966) – a mystical rumination on identity in which two women merge personalities -- Bergman embarked upon a second run of masterpieces that are more mature and somewhat less seen. “Hour of the Wolf” (1968), “Shame” (1968), and “A Passion” led to a commercial resurgence with “Cries and Whispers” (1972) and “Scenes from a Marriage."
“Cries” was nominated for five Academy Awards, unusual for a foreign-language film. “Fanny and Alexander” (1982), Bergman’s final theatrical work before retiring to concentrate on stage and TV directing, was nominated for six Oscars and won three. Over the course of his career, the director was nominated for nine Oscars and received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1971. Three of his films won the Foreign Language Oscar -- “The Virgin Spring” (1960), “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961), and “Fanny and Alexander.”
About Movie Nation
ContributorsTy Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.
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