Virgin Territory

Two new career-spanning DVDs prove Ingmar Bergman remains fresh and radical.

By Leo Charney
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 1, 2006

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The Virgin Spring
A-
Includes: Commentary track, interviews, introduction by Ang Lee, 30-page booklet.

Saraband
A
Includes: Making-of featurette.

You'll Like Them If You Like: Art cinema, philosophical drama, psychological character studies.

Ingmar Bergman still feels radical more than 60 years after he started making movies. Challenging God, facing the darkest human emotions, never shying away from conflict and violence-he's more fearless and intense than most filmmakers a quarter his age.

Look at how he stares at people. His camera hits them dead-on, unblinking, so we can watch conflicted feelings play across their faces. Yet we're also always watching a face, something material with its own planes and colors.

Pitilessly unafraid, yet compassionate for frailties and weaknesses, Bergman was the first great filmmaker to wrestle with the abdication of God, the unmooring of a universe that's lost a simple organizing principle. His brooding on God's indifference seems even more radical today in an era of creeping fundamentalism.

See for yourself in two new DVDs that span his career: 1960's The Virgin Spring, his gruesome story of medieval murder and vengeance, in a sparkling new Criterion edition that brings out the film's stark blacks-and-whites; and 2003's contemporary family drama Saraband, briefly shown in theaters here last year, which he made on digital video for Swedish TV at the age of 85 as a semisequel to his 1970s marathon TV drama Scenes From a Marriage.

The Virgin Spring feels like a Kurosawa movie. It's a brutal telling of a young blond girl raped and murdered in the woods. The settings are plain, the light and cinematography austere, the action powerfully concentrated, with minimal dialogue and scenes so intense with sorrow and brutality that viewers may find them hard to take.

The girl's sober, religious father avenges her death, putting him on a collision course with his God: "You allowed it!" he angrily admonishes the sky in the last scene. "I don't understand you. Yet I still ask your forgiveness. I don't know any other way to live."

Wrestling with God and tortured emotions, Bergman's characters are constantly trying to figure out a way to live, and failing. "My life has been shit," says Johan, the 86-year-old professor at the heart of Saraband. "A thoroughly meaningless, idiotic life." His contempt for himself is matched only by his scorn for Henrik, his weak, roly-poly son, whom he admits to hating since childhood: "I never did like him," he says to his ex-wife Marianne. "He was as devoted as a dog. I wanted to kick him."

One of the most powerful movies released last year, Saraband works out its variations on human desolation and self-delusion through 10 scenes, each showing two family members in a significant conversation. Johan, his ex-wife, his son and his granddaughter nurse raw wounds, rehash old grievances and suffer from the recent death of Henrik's wife Anna.

In one of the most charged encounters, Henrik approaches his father to borrow money but winds up, as always, facing the old man's bitter contempt.

"Papa, where does all this hostility come from?" he pleadingly asks.

"I don't give a damn if you hate me," Johan matter-of-factly replies. "You barely exist."

Perversely, the hostile contempt between father and son creates an emotional bond greater than chilly, self-contained lawyer Marianne has with her institutionalized daughter, with whom she finally makes a (small) connection in the film's final moment.

Before that scene, she and ex-husband Johan-vividly embodied by longtime Bergman actors Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson-are stripped bare (literally) when he appears at her bedroom door in the middle of the night, tormented by "a hellish anxiety," and winds up stripping off his clothes to lie next to her almost chastely, like a child.

This tableau gets at the randomness, but necessary comfort, of human connections that haunts all Bergman movies. In a universe where God is no longer the organizing principle, what causes people to come together, what causes them to come apart, and above all, what causes them to be who they are?

Bergman offers no answers to these questions. Death, robbed of theological meaning, becomes the ultimate random event in both movies. Nearing his own death, Bergman stares it boldly in the face, and his films vividly catch the reflections it sends back toward our lives.


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