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07.30.07 Ingmar Bergman Died At The Age Of 89

Ingmar Bergman - Wikipedia

Ingmar Bergman, director who captured life's emotion, dead at 89
Mick LaSalle, Chronicle Movie Critic

Monday, July 30, 2007

(07-30) 20:31 PDT -- Over a 60-year career as either writer or director and usually as both, Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish filmmaker who died Monday, created a body of work that's unmistakable and unique in its depiction of the soul's inner struggle. Using a medium that records surfaces, he captured the private, the elemental, the unspoken longings and shattering terrors that define the real experience of life on this planet. And he did so with more raw intensity and uncluttered truth than any filmmaker before or since.

Bergman, who was 89 and died at his home in Faro, Sweden, was a towering, unsurpassed figure in world cinema and one of the dominant and defining artists of the 20th century. His pursuit of truth was unyielding and lifelong. From his first film to his last, he saw life as a series of mysterious circumstances, and he would not yield to any facile attempt to define it. Instead, he used his camera to record the nature of that mystery, by cutting through the clutter of hope, worry and ego to perceive life as it is.

His fascination was, as he put it, "the wholeness inside every human being," and his subjects were love, death, God, lust, emotional alienation and cruelty -- basic emotions and concerns that give the lie to the pervasive impression of Bergman as a cerebral, austere filmmaker.

He was born July 14, 1918, the son of a Lutheran minister to the court of Sweden and a wealthy mother. Bergman's observations of the tensions and infidelities within his parents' marriage would make a lifelong impression and form the basis for many of the relationships depicted in his films.

Though he insisted he was never a bookworm, he studied literature and art at the University of Stockholm. His goal was to be a stage director, and in 1944 he became the manager of the Halsingborg City Theater. For the next 20 years, even as film dominated his life, Bergman would always maintain his connection with the stage, working in theaters throughout Sweden. It was through the stage that Bergman found most of the remarkable actors that would form his cinematic stock company: Erland Josephson, Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Bibi Andersson and others.

In 1946, he became a director with the film, "Crisis," and over the next seven years developed and honed his skills as a filmmaker, directing nine films and writing several more. In 1953, he directed a free-spirited Harriet Andersson in "Summer With Monika," about the complications that ensue when two young people fall in love and the girl becomes pregnant. The shot of Andersson on an incline in the midst of nature, as seen from below with her blouse half undone, became an iconic image of the new European cinema.

But it was with "Smiles of a Summer Night" (1955), a romantic comedy, that Bergman first came to international attention. Two years later, "The Seventh Seal" (1957), in which a medieval knight (von Sydow) plays chess with death, introduced the filmmaker in a darker, more questing vein, while providing one of the classic tableaux of Bergman's oeuvre. "Wild Strawberries," released later that year, received widespread acclaim, with its story of an old man's (Victor Sjostrom) journey of discovery, as he comes to grips with his personal failings, in anticipation of death.

During the early '60s, Bergman made three chamber films, each dealing with the issue of faith, and each requiring performances of profound emotional intimacy. In "Through a Glass Darkly" (1961), which won the Academy Award for best foreign film, Bergman traces the descent of a lively young woman (Harriet Andersson) into mental illness. The solo moments, in which Andersson retreats into a room to commune with the spirits in her mind, are staggering in their emotional nakedness. In "Winter Light" (1962), Bergman told the story of a Lutheran priest (Bjornstrand), who tries, without success, to dissuade a depressed man (von Sydow) from killing himself. The last film in the faith trilogy, "The Silence," created a stir in 1963 for its use of nudity and its presentation of raw carnality.

Bergman's austerity was only on the surface. His films were about little besides emotion, and his focused commitment to depicting emotion made his films more truly passionate than even those of his Italian contemporary, Fellini.

"No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight of the soul," he once wrote. Beginning with the faith trilogy and for the rest of his career, Bergman worked to create a cinema that consisted entirely of such moments of deep psychological penetration.

Other directors might settle for less. Other filmmakers might guide an audience through an entire story just to arrive at some special moment of intensity or revelation. Bergman found such achievements too small for his talents. Other directors might entertain an audience through plot just to arrive at some golden moment of meaning.

Bergman strived to make films that were all meaning, that revealed themselves and kept revealing themselves, peeling away layer after layer, and finding a deeper truth. In that sense, "Cries and Whispers" (1972), about two sisters who gather around the death bed of a third sister, can be seen as Bergman's apotheosis.

Having put away metaphysics with the faith trilogy, Bergman entered his great period with "Persona," about an actress who can no longer speak (Ullmann) and a talkative nurse (Bibi Andersson), with whom she develops an intense and tortured relationship. The film, about emotional vampirism and identity, contains one of the most famous images in 20th century film: Andersson and Ullmann looking directly into the camera, their faces pressed together. "Hour of the Wolf" (1968) continued in this psychological vein, with von Sydow as a man struggling with his sanity.

"Shame" (1968), about the effect of civil war on two artists (von Sydow and Ullmann), was Bergman's artistic response to the Vietnam War. His strategy was simple but brilliant: He showed westerners going through what the average Vietnamese citizen was going through -- terror, anxiety, degradation and confusion.

"Cries and Whispers" was nominated for a best picture Academy Award but lost to "The Sting." The following year Bergman created one of his most accessible and popular works, "Scenes from a Marriage" (1974), starring Ullmann and Josephson as a suburban married couple with deep resentments boiling beneath the surface.

In 1976, Bergman was arrested by Swedish authorities for income tax fraud and suffered a nervous breakdown. He left Sweden and moved to Munich, where he directed for the stage and made films, including his masterful mother-daughter study, "Autumn Sonata" (1978), starring Ingrid Bergman (in her last film performance) and Ullmann.

The charges against Bergman were dropped, and he returned to Sweden in 1981 to film the autobiographical "Fanny and Alexander" (1983), which became his greatest international hit. Upon its completion, the 65-year-old director announced it would be his final film. But like that great retiree, Frank Sinatra, Bergman found himself surprised by longevity, and over the next 20 years, he continued to work. He directed for the stage and provided the screenplays for a number of films, most notably for "Faithless" (2000), a semi-autobiographical film about adultery, directed by Ullmann.

Bergman's vision, which once shocked audiences by showing the passion underneath the facade of repression, now seemed reassuring in at least one regard. Rare among 21st century artists, Bergman still believed in human complexity and value. He believed that the actions of people mattered. Finally, in 2003, Bergman, still enjoying good health, did the inevitable -- he went back to directing, with "Saraband." Starring Ullmann and Josephson, the film took the characters they'd played in "Scenes from a Marriage" and told the story of the ensuing 30 years. The master had lost none of his fire.

Like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce in literature, Ingmar Bergman strove to capture and illuminate the mystery, ecstasy and fullness of life, by concentrating on individual consciousness and essential moments. His achievement is unsurpassed. He is one of the few filmmakers who can be spoken of in the same breath with those artists and with other supreme figures of other disciplines.

Bergman is at the pinnacle. He is in the eternal pantheon. Without question, Bergman was one of the 20th century's greatest artists.




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