Tag Archive: Ingmar Bergman


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Throughout the 1960s, Ingmar Bergman would tackle the question “How are we able to live?”

That’s not a question you ask when you’re happy with the state of the world. It’s a question you ask when you have thought seriously about the history and perpetuation of suffering and oppression. It’s that inescapable, nagging thought that humanity’s power structures, humanity’s base drives, and humanity’s future is fundamentally evil and you’re terrified that these cycles of destruction, violence, and wanton cruelty will never disappear.

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Best of Movies: 401-450

As any of you who read the blog regularly know, I have decided to stop reviewing movies for the foreseeable future. I am working on a screenplay, and at the moment, the screenplay has the highest priority for my free time. That said, I haven’t stopped watching movies, and one of the reasons that I started in this blog in the first place was that I wanted to be able to sort in my mind what were actually the best films of any given year because I rarely agreed with the Oscars. I.e., Argo was only the seventh best of just the Best Picture nominees for me in 2012 (and there were plenty of non-nominees that I preferred to it as well). With that being the case, I figured I could still keep making these lists of what were the best movies and performances of the last 50 films I’ve seen. The unfortunate side of this is that there won’t be links to the reviews for many of these for at least the next good while. Although thankfully, the only film on this list without a review to link back to will be the drama A Love Song For Bobby Long. That will be more of a problem for future lists like this. Anyways, I hope you find something worth watching here.

 

Best Picture: Drama

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1. The Bicycle Thief (1948)

2. Bergman’s “Trilogy of Faith:” Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), The Silence (1963)

3. To the Wonder (2012)

4. Into the Wild (2007)

5. Raging Bull (1980)

 

Best Picture: Comedy

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1. Bringing Up Baby (1938)

2. Duck Soup (1933)

3. The Incredibles (2004)

4. Paranorman (2012)

5. Heathers (1989)

 

Best Director:

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1. Ingmar Bergman: His “Trilogy of Faith”

2. Terrence Malick: To the Wonder

3. Werner Herzog: Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

4. Vittorio De Sica: The Bicycle Thief

5. Martin Scorsese: Raging Bull

 

Best Actor in a Dramatic Role:

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1. Robert Deniro: Raging Bull

2. James Stewart: Vertigo (1958)

3. Gunnar Bjornstrand: Winter Light

4. Jean-Louis Trintingant: Amour (2012)

5. Lamberto Maggioriani: The Bicycle Thief

 

Best Actress in a Dramatic Role:

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1. Emmanuelle Riva: Amour

2. Harriett Andersson: Through a Glass Darkly

3. Ingrid Thulin: The Silence

4. Scarlett Johansson: A Love Song for Bobby Long (2004,  no review)

5. Charlotte Gainsbourg: Melancholia (2011)

 

Best Actor in a Comedic Role:

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1. Cary Grant: Bringing Up Baby

2. Christian Slater: Heathers

3. Groucho Marx: Duck Soup

4. Craig T. Nelson: The Incredibles

5. Donald O’Connor: There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954)

 

Best Actress in a Comedic Role:

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1. Katharine Hepburn: Bringing Up Baby

2. Winona Ryder: Heathers

3. Holly Hunter: The Incredibles

4. Molly Ringwald: Sixteen Candles (1984)

5. Ethel Merman: There’s No Business Like Show Business

 

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:

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1. Hal Holbrook: Into the Wild

2. Albert Brooks: Drive (2011)

3. Max Von Sydow: Through a Glass Darkly

4. Joe Pesci: Raging Bull

5. Anthony Hopkins: The Elephant Man (198)

 

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:

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1. Gunnel Lindblom: The Silence

2. Catherine Keener: Into the Wild

3. Taraji P. Henson: Hustle & Flow (2005)

4. Cathy Moriarty: Raging Bull

5. Isabella Huppert: Amour

 

Alright, folks. That’s it for this time around. The next time I have one of these, I will have watched 500 movies for this blog (although, as I said, I’m guessing I won’t have actual reviews for them). I don’t like the idea of totally giving up on reviewing films so what I think will actually happen (cause I love writing too much to just stop) is that I will save my reviews for films that I consider to be an “A” or “A+” because generally speaking, those will be the reviews that I’ll have something particularly meaning to say about. Anyways, enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Best of Year 3

So… oops. I should have put this article up 15 days ago. My blog, Hot Saas’s Pop Culture Safari, turned 3 years old on February 7th. That’s crazy. Of course, I haven’t been updating this blog with any sort of regularity these last 2-3 months because I’ve been working pretty intensely on a screenplay. I only today realized that my three year anniversary happened two weeks ago. So, yeah, my bad. And, once again, it’s time to do my yearly list of the best movies, directors, and performances from the past year. I hope readers find something worth watching in this list.

Best Picture: Drama

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1. Chinatown

2. The Bicycle Thief

3. Ingmar Bergman’s “Trilogy of Faith” (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence)

4. The Godfather: Part II

5. Glengarry Glen Ross

 

Best Picture: Comedy

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1. Annie Hall

2. Silver Linings Playbook

3. (500) Days of Summer

4. Bringing Up Baby

5. Duck Soup

 

Best Director:

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1. Ingmar Bergman: His “Trilogy of Faith

2. Terrence Malick: To the Wonder

3. Roman Polanski: Chinatown

4. Francis Ford Coppola: The Godfather: Part II

5. Werner Herzog: Encounters at the End of the World

 

Best Actor in a Dramatic Role:

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1. Bruno Ganz: Downfall

2. Jack Lemmon: Glengarry Glen Ross

3. Al Pacino: The Godfather: Part II

4. Leonardo DiCaprio: The Departed

5. Joaquin Phoenix: The Master

 

Best Actress in a Dramatic Role:

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1. Glenn Close: Fatal Attraction

2. Glenda Jackson: Sunday Bloody Sunday

3. Emmanuelle Riva: Amour

4. Harriet Andersson: Through a Glass Darkly

5. Faye Dunaway: Chinatown

 

Best Actor in a Comedic Role:

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1. Bradley Cooper: Silver Linings Playbook

2. Billy Bob Thornton: Bad Santa

3. Joseph Gordon-Levitt: (500) Days of Summer

4. Cary Grant: Bringing Up Baby

5. Woody Allen: Annie Hall

 

Best Actress in a Comedic Role:

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1. Jennifer Lawrence: Silver Linings Playbook

2. Diane Keaton: Annie Hall

3. Katharine Hepburn: Bringing Up Baby

4. Zooey Deschanel: (500) Days of Summer

5. Holly Hunter: Raising Arizona

 

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:

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1. Dustin Hoffman: Rain Man

2. Al Pacino: Glengarry Glen Ross

3. Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Master

4. Robert De Niro: Silver Linings Playbook

5. Robin Williams: Good Will Hunting

 

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:

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1. Gunnel Lindblom: The Silence

2. Sally Field: Lincoln

3. Natalie Portman: Leon: The Professional

4. Diane Keaton: The Godfather: Part II

5. Judi Dench: Skyfall

 

Alright, everybody. That’s what I think was the best movies, directors, and performances that I’ve watched in the last year (and two weeks). I hope you all find something you like, and keep reading. I promise that I’ll be updating the blog with more regularity soon. Enjoy!

 

 

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I’m uncomfortable with the fact that I’ve only seen four Ingmar Bergman films. Having just watched The Silence, I’ve seen his Trilogy of Faith (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence) as well as Persona. I’m uncomfortable with this fact because, after just four films, I’ve become convinced that Ingmar Bergman is the greatest film-maker to ever live, outpacing competitors like Terrence Malick or Fellini by miles.  For a man whose films have a reputation as being inaccessible and detached, Bergman’s cinematic output radiates the total emotional spectrum of life with an insight and honesty that no other filmmaker is capable of matching.

As I mentioned, The Silence is the final films of Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith, though the films only constitute a trilogy in a thematic sense, and The Silence seems somewhat removed from the religious questions of the first two films. If Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light look at a world where men suffer because they can not find God, The Silence looks at a world devoid of even the desire to reach out and touch him. And it is a dark, cruel world indeed. Out of the four Bergman films I’ve seen, The Silence is the darkest and most disturbing and easily the most difficult to solve, but when the pieces of this particular Bergman puzzle fall into place, it reveals itself as one of his most complex and rewarding works.

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Like all of Bergman’s films, The Silence has a simple story that belies magnificent characters and soul-searching themes. Two sisters, the sexually liberated Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) and the intellectual but sickly Ester (Winter Light‘s Ingrid Thulin), are traveling through an unnamed European country with Anna’s precocious son, Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom). When Ester’s illness interrupts their train ride home, they stay at a post hotel where the emotional, psychological, and sexual tension in this family is allowed to fester and take hold.

There is so much more to the film than that cursory explanation, but if you’re anything like me, part of the pleasure of watching The Silence for the first time will be trying to struggle to understand what it’s about. And I won’t lie. It wasn’t until halfway through the movie that Ingmar Bergman’s intentions with this film became clear. Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Lighare both fairly straightforward by Bergman standards, and The Silence is a Lynchian fever dream in comparison. The surrealist flourishes throughout the whole picture seem superfluous at first, but then you understand them, and you’re bowled over by Bergman’s extraordinary attention to detail.

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Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith is famous for its exploration of religious doubt, but The Silence confirms my suspicions that even more than tackling the Silence of God, the trilogy is about our failures to communicate with each other as human beings. The film is called The Silence, and maybe it refers to the complete lack of God’s presence in this work, but to me, it signifies the utter silence in these women’s lives (and the boy’s) as they are unable to forge real connections with each other. Much of The Silence (particularly the first act) could work as a silent movie, and throughout the whole film, everyone is trying to connect with someone else, and no one succeeds because we’re all too trapped in our own heads and our own problems to notice anyone else.

It is significant, for example, that the sisters stop in a country where Anna, a translator who speaks fluent English, German, French, and Swedish, doesn’t speak a word of the language. Unless the sisters and Johan are speaking to each other, they can’t speak meaningfully to anyone else. And they can barely have meaningful conversations with each other. Ester seems to harbor sexual feelings towards her more liberated sister and can’t be affectionate with anyone else. Johan won’t even let Ester anywhere near him. Johan only feels affection towards his mother (perhaps too much affection), and Anna’s life is so devoid of any meaning of its own (and much resentment towards her controlling sister) that she’ll sleep with anyone just to feel something but never does.

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Outside of Terrence Malick’s recent ouvre (particularly The Tree of Life and To the Wonder), this is easily one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve reviewed since Elvira Madigan. Bergman’s long-time cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, began his fruitful collaboration with Bergman during this Trilogy, and The Silence is the ultimate expression visually of what Bergman was trying to achieve. The deep and cavernous shadows, the painterly composition of every shot, the use of close-ups that reminds you why the close-up was invented in the first place; every visual aspect of the film is sheer perfection.

And, it wouldn’t be a Bergman film without ferocious performances (the only director I can think of who can coax such natural and ferocious performances from his stars is Kenneth Lonergan) from his leads. Like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, Bergman crafts some of the most memorable female roles in cinema history, and Ester and Anna are no exception. It’s hard to say who the lead of the film is because both women seem to have an equal amount of screen on time though I think it’s safe to say that Anna carries the thematic burdens of the film most impressively.

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For an actress that I had never heard of up until November when I saw Winter Light for the first time, Ingrid Thulin has quickly jumped to the top of my list of the greatest actresses of the 20th century which includes Women in Love‘s Glenda Jackson and (obviously) Meryl Streep and Katharine Hepburn. Only Glenda Jackson has managed to make such an impression with so few performances. Her performance seemed a bit over-the-top at first, but once you realized the depth of Ester’s suffering, it all makes sense and her climactic scene in of the film’s final moments is one of the most powerful in any Bergman film I’ve yet seen. And, of course, Gunnel Lindblom, is just as good as the tempestuous and deeply sexual Anna.

I’ve written some 3000 odd words today for both this blog and the one where I write for my cousin. To say that my brain is spent would be an understatement. It feels less like mush and more like mush that has been speeding through a psychotic carnival ride. So let me leave you with this. Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith is one of the great cinematic achievements of the 1960s and filmmaking in general. The Silence isn’t as easy to pierce as its first two entries, but if you’re willing to make the effort, it riches are almost beyond compare.

Final Score: A+

 

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(A quick aside before I begin my review proper. We’re entering another “A+” heavy block after only two last time around. This will be number four for this block but I stand by every single one of these scores. This is partially attributable to the fact that I’m watching all of Ingmar Bergment’s Trilogy of Faith, and as of this review, two out of three of those films have gotten perfect marks. So, I haven’t suddenly lost my critical faculties. I’m just watching a lot of great films.)

Though I am now what Bertrand Russell called a “teapot agnostic,” I was a deeply religious child and teenager. But, and apologies to anyone this statement offends, religion caused me nothing but psychological torment and crippling neuroses. Beyond the deeper metaphysical questions (such as the Alpha and Omega or the concept of an eternal afterlife) that I would drive myself physically ill pondering, the Christian proscriptions towards sexual behavior nearly tore me to pieces during puberty. Although I always wanted to believe in God more than I actually did (more on that and how this whole rant relates to this film soon. I promise.), I didn’t finally give up on religion until I realized how insane it was that I was being consumed by self-loathing every time I was physically intimate with a girl I wasn’t even having sex with. Yet, according to Christianity, I was supposed to feel guilty for this, and I finally called bullshit.

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Perhaps, then, it’s his obsession with religious and sexual guilt that has drawn me so intensely to Ingmar Bergman (Persona). Bergman was the son of a strict Lutheran minister, and in every one of his films that I’ve ever seen, the battle between one’s own sexual urges and the external forces of religious coercion is omnipresent (among other bleak themes such as insanity and heartbreak). Bergman dwelled on these issues and exorcised his personal demons (and the overwhelming guilt of his religious upbringing) through his art, and for anyone who’s ever been consumed by these same themes, his films are required viewing (look no further than Woody Allen who battled the same existentialist themes throughout all of his best works).

And that theme of the nature of God and the suffering that man foists upon itself in order to hear the call and logic of a non-existent God has never been more emphasized in Bergman’s work than in his (apocryphally termed) “Trilogy of Faith.” The first film, Through a Glass Darkly dealt with the ordinary man’s inability to perceive or communicate with God. The only individual in the cast who ever sensed God’s presence was a schizophrenic young woman who then saw him as a malevolent spider god. And, the film became a commentary on how we seek the affection of God when we are unable to receive it from the people closest to us. The bleak and forceful Winter Light expands that then to a study of a man, whose job requires being a conduit for God’s voice encountering instead God’s silence.

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Gunnar Bjornstrand  plays the emotionally handicapped pastor, Tomas Ericsson. Holding sway over a run-down parish where only a handful of parishioners show up for Sunday Mass, Tomas’s heart isn’t in the clergy anymore and hasn’t been for years and years. At his empty mass, one of the church-goers is an outspoken atheist, Marta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin), who only attends hoping that afterwards she can gain the affection of the widower pastor, who has consistently spurned her advances. Another two are a married couple who haven’t been to church in ages but only made it to this session because the husband is suffering in dread fear of a nuclear holocaust. The organ-player constantly checks his watch so that he can leave, and a child sleeps in the pews and licks a chair when he isn’t unconscious. Tomas’s temple is not healthy.

After the mass, Tomas attempts to counsel the terrified Jonas Persson (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Max von Sydow) are catastrophic as Tomas is experiencing a massive crisis of faith himself. Since his wife’s death, Tomas has received nothing but silence from God and in a nihilistic conversation with Jonas, he ponders if it was ever there. These are not the comforting words that the emotionally fragile Jonas needed to hear and disaster quickly follows. Tomas also rejects the loving and desperately lonely Marta again and again as she only tries to care for him and despite the obvious fact that he cares for her. Tomas can not hear the voice of God, and in his anger and self-loathing, he takes it out on the most vulnerable around him who need his guidance and care.

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With a handful of conversations in Winter Light, Ingmar Bergman does more to pierce the veil of suffering that religion (and the logical doubt caused by its existence) inflicts on its practitioners than any book or academic piece I’ve ever read. The disastrous counseling session between Tomas and Jonas speaks to the dangers of investing all of one’s hopes in the possibility that religion has answers to our most dramatic life problems. Marta writes Tomas a letter and in a beautifully handled long-take, we get the clearest defense of her atheist position in the face of the pain it causes Tomas. And later on, in a schoolhouse, Tomas is in the midst of horrendous pain for playing a role in a specific tragedy and he lashes out at the innocent Marta with as much as force as he can muster showing the hypocrisy of his faith.

From a technical perspective, this is one of Bergman’s least complex films. The camerawork is stark and unpretentious (not that I don’t love the dizzying visual wizardry of Bergman films like Persona) and that fits with the film’s astoundingly somber tone. The cinematography is straight-forward but never once lets you escape the emotional torment these Swedes find themselves in. Particularly, during the five minute long shot of Marta reading her letter, you are made intimately aware of how much she’s hurting (achieved in no small part through Ingrid Thulin’s emotionally grueling performance).

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And, like all Bergman films, the performances are something to be treasured. Even more than his beleaguered David in Through a Glass Darkly, Gunnar Bjornstrand turns Tomas into a haunted and haunting figure. The movie begins during the lengthy closing of Mass at Tomas’s parish, and from the get go, Bjornstrand makes it clear that Tomas’s heart isn’t in this anymore. And as the very definition of his existence continues to fall more rapidly apart as the film progresses, Bjornstrand radiates the horrific torment destroying this figure whose life has no clear meaning anymore.

And ingrid Thulin’s Marta is one of the most devastating portrayals of female desperation this side of Rachel, Rachel or Women in Love. Although Marta infatuation with Tomas borders on the pathetic (any self-respecting woman would have given up on such a cold and callous man years ago), the aging school marm sees the hopes for her emotional salvation in this wounded man. And Thulin captures the breadth of her dreams, desires, and heartbreak. Max von Sydow isn’t in the film for very long, but his brief reunion with his Through a Glass Darkly co-star was the scene that catapulted this scene towards the masterful realm that it then never left.

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In the film’s closing moments, a nearly catatonic Tomas arrives for his final mass of the day to a church completely empty of anyone other than his atheist admirer, the drunk organ player, and the crippled sexton. As Tomas is preparing his sermon, the sexton speaks with Tomas about Christ’s Passion, i.e. the last hours of his life. And the sexton wonders if perhaps we haven’t overvalued Christ’s physical suffering over his emotional suffering from the betrayal and abandonment of his disciples and God himself when he’s on the cross and God won’t answer his pleas. If you understand what makes that so powerful within the context of this film, do yourself a favor and watch another masterpiece from one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live.

Final Score: A+

 

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(A quick aside before I begin this review. I am, to put it lightly, hungover and am worried this review will be garbage because of it. This film is an undeniable masterpiece so I hope I can persevere and make my review do it justice.)

If you were to ask literary snobs if movies could tackle the same grand themes of the best books, their answer would likely be a derisive laugh and a short, “No… just no.” And, 99% of the time, they’d be right. Movies are my preferred art form, but there’s no denying that outside of the absolute best works, their themes can be shallow, repetitive, and not terribly original. But, if there’s one film maker who deserves to stand among the most philosophical storytellers not just of the big screen but of all time, it’s the Swedish master, Ingmar Bergman. Not content to examine the rote, well-trod aspects of human existence, Bergman digs to the core of our existential experience. Questioning not the act of love but love itself, examining not a particular religion but the presence (or lack thereof) of God in our lives, focusing not on the death of one but on the role mortality plays in all our lives, every Bergman film is a mental exercise in critical analysis of our place in the universe. 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly does not disappoint.

Alongside Winter Light and The Silence, the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winner Through a Glass Darkly constitutes the first entry in Bergman’s “trilogy of faith.” An unofficial trilogy (in so far as Bergman didn’t realize they made a thematic triptych until after he had made them), the movies (from what I understand because I’ve only seen Through a Glass Darkly so far) constitute a meditation on religious faith and whether humans can feel the presence of God if he exists while also asking a serious question about whether he exists in the first place. And Through a Glass Darkly takes a deeply dysfunctional family as a starting point for the exploration of the idea that we use religious attachment and God’s love as a way to make up for a lack of emotional intimacy and personal affection in our own lives as well as a haunting thesis on the way that we create dark mirrors of ourselves in the people we keep around us.

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Described as a “chamber film” (both for its limited locations and characters as well as its use of chamber music in the score), Through a Glass Darkly takes place over the course of twenty four hours on a secluded Swedish island as one bourgeois family is forced to confront its neuroses, dysfunction, and hidden secrets. Karin (Harriett Andersson) has just been released from a mental hospital after a continued battle with schizophrenia. Her husband Martin (The Exorcist‘s Max von Sydow), a compassionate but frustrated doctor is bringing Karin back to her family home where her playwright seventeen year old brother, Minus (Lars Passgard) lives mostly by himself except on those rare occasions when their father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a struggling novelist, is home. Thinking that the love and support of her family may be enough to limit the severity of Karin’s schizophrenia, no one expects that the divisions tearing this family apart will have the opposite effect.

Because in this particular Swedish family, the only remotely well-adjusted member is David who is himself suffering from deep sexual frustration and the knowledge that he is slowly but surely losing grasp on his wife. Both Karin and Minus resent their father who is never around, and Minus presents an elaborate play (that he wrote himself and performed in) that is both a welcome home present to his father as well as a not particularly subtle jab at his father’s failure as a writer and a parent. Minus too suffers from deep sexual frustration, what with being seventeen and living on a secluded island by himself with his crazy sister for occasional company. And when his sister finds him reading a Playboy-esque magazine, she teases him nearly to the point of flirtation. And David of course feels guilty about his shortcomings as a father as well as his morbid interest in his daughter’s mental illness considering that his wife ultimately succumbed to the same problem. And, all the while, Karin’s symptoms (which had been in remission) are coming back with a vengeance.

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As you can probably tell from that plot description, Through a Glass Darkly is as bleak (if not more so) than his later Persona. Wrestling with mental illness in a disturbingly realistic and un-Hollywood manner, Through a Glass Darkly is a portrait of a family circling the edge of oblivion and it would be a Bergman film if we weren’t brought past the brink by the film’s end. Dealing with incest, frigidity, sexual guilt, our inability to have a meaningful relationship with God (either because he doesn’t exist or because we can’t touch him), and the particular breed of narcissism at the heart of many artists. Bergman has a deserved reputation as an artist fixated on the concept of human suffering, but through an examination of individuals suffering hellish existentialist crises, Bergman offers up a cinematic opportunity to examine the paths that lead us to suffering and a call to avoid falling into these traps.

Much like Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson in Persona, Through a Glass Darkly is heavily defined by an electric performance from its female lead. That Harriet Andersson was not nominated for a Best Actress Oscar at the 1961 Academy Awards seems like a crime (though with a Sophia Loren win for Two Women and plenty of other great nominees, it was a fairly strong year). Sensual and supremely vulnerable, Andersson’s performance was as emotionally naked as the part required, and like Laura Dern in Inland Empire or Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Andersson’s portrayal of a woman past the verge of insanity is just stellar, and alongside Catherine Denueve in Polanski’s Repulsion, it marks an interesting comment on feminine sexual repression. I would be hard-pressed to name another writer-directed that consistently wrote as many excellent parts for female actresses as Ingmar Bergman did.

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And the men are just as good. It’s interesting just how much tension and conflict Bergman can create with such small casts whether it’s the two principals of Persona or the only four people we see whatsoever in Through a Glass Darkly. Special mention must go to Gunnar Bjornstrand’s David who is the most morally bankrupt person in the family but it is clear that out of the men, he may be the one that suffers nearly as much as Karin. He not only watched his wife succumb to madness but now he sees his daughter doing the same thing and he wrestles with guilt to his natural reaction to her pain. Lars Passgard’s portrayal of a young man struggling with guilt about his own sexual urges should be terriffically painful for any man who ever went through puberty and fought religious sexual guilt. And, as one of the greatest Swedish film actors of all time, Max Von Sydow’s Martin is a sufficiently pained and sympathetic creation.

Alright, I wrote half of this review yesterday in the throes of a killer hangover and I wrote the rest of it today after my brain was drained by a particularly strenuous exam. So, it’s probably time to draw this to a close. Let me end then by saying that Ingmar Bergman is one of the most rare types of filmmakers. Like Terrence Malick or Kenneth Lonergan, his films’ goals aren’t to entertain. They mean to edify. So, is sitting down for the perfectly trimmed 96 minutes of Through a Glass Darkly the right move if you’re looking for a good time or an entertaining experience? Hell no. It’s miserable in the absolute best sort of way (though not quite as painful as Amour). But, you will leave the film knowing that you just witnessed an important piece of art that had something real to say and, honestly, that is the ideal of any art form. And Bergman was one of the truest masters of his.

Final Score: A+

 

Long time readers of the blog may know that for the last couple of months I have opined the lack of a single movie that I’ve felt was worthy of the elusive score of an A+. Yes, I’ve given several books that score recently, but not since I reviewed Gary Oldman’s directorial debut and cinema verite masterpiece, Nil by Mouth, on August 5th has a movie received top marks. As a matter of fact, we are less than a month away from the one year anniversary of this blog’s existence with almost 170 movie reviews (out of my 441 posts), only 7 films have gotten that elusive score. Well, leave it to the Swedes to finally get me to number 8. During my first review for a Federico Fellini picture (the understated La Strada), I mentioned three names as being arguably the most influential in foreign cinema. Those men were Federico Fellini (Italy), Akira Kurosawa (Japan), and Ingmar Bergman (Sweden). Lo and behold, those three men are now responsible for three of the best movies I’ve watched for this blog (and none were films I had seen at any point earlier in my life). Fellini Satyricon has come to symbolize for me the A Clockwork Orange of historical epics, and Kurosawa’s Ran was an absurdly delightful (and visually stunning) amalgamation of King Lear and samurai. Ingmar Bergman’s 1967 classic Persona is much harder to categorize. Alongside David Lynch’s Inland Empire, it is perhaps the most overtly intellectual and symbolic film I’ve watched to date, but at a perfect running time and a marvelous minimalist presentation, Persona had its claws in me from its disorienting beginning to its even more puzzling conclusion.

To describe the plot of Persona to newcomers (such as myself just an hour and a half ago) is to walk a less than metaphorical minefield. Anything short of a scholarly analysis of every scene would belie the inherent complexity of the tale beneath its seemingly simple shell. Bergman’s muse Liv Ullmann plays actress Elisabet Vogler, an actress who has suddenly and inexplicably developed a case of complete mutism. She is assigned a beautiful young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) to take care of her. After a brief stay at a local hospital, Elisabet’s doctor decides that it would be for the best for Elisabet to get some fresh air by the ocean, and so Alma and Elisabet move into a secluded beach house completely apart from the rest of the world. As Alma shares every last intimate detail of her life with the wordless Elisabet, the women develop a deep (and dangerous) bond, and Alma slowly grows viciously jealous of any attention and affection the mute Alma could potentially show to others. Without wanting to ruin anything for fear of spoiling the pleasure of this truly classic film, the line between reality and fantasy (and even reality and the film you are watching) slowly begins to unfurl, the tightening bonds between these two women threatens to hurtle them both over the edge.

Bergman (alongside Fellini and possibly Goddard) is responsible for so much of the iconic imagery and shot composition of the last 50 years worth of artistically ambitious cinema. Whether it is extreme and intentionally uncomfortable close-ups  of the actors’ faces (so that every twitch and pang is painfully visible) or the oft-parodied shot of one actress facing the camera directly while the other sits at a perpendicular angle or the combination of a spartan set direction with high contrasts of shadows and light such that half the shot is nearly invisible while the other half is washed out in sunlight, this film was obviously made on a pittance but it remains both a visual powerhouse and one of the most stylistically influential films from one of the most influential directors of all time. David Lynch famously recreated the shot of the two heroines’ faces merging in his neo-noir psychological thriller Mulholland Drive. Similarly, this one of the earliest films I can remember watching where a director clearly reminded the audience that they were watching a film. The movie begins through the lens of a projector and brief flashes of old silent films. Whenever possible, Bergman reflects cinematic artifice right back at the audience in order to strengthen the over-all themes of the fleeting nature of reality even going so far as to have the film completely come apart at the seams during a moment of high psychological stress.

There are only five characters in the film, but only Alma and Elisabet are ever on screen for more than a minute or so. Much like Giulietta Massina for Federico Fellini (who was his wife and long-time inspiration), Liv Ullmann was one of Bergman’s most recurring stars and despite speaking only a dozen words or so the entire film, it was immediately apparent why she was able to inspire one of the most creative minds in cinema history. With just her impressively emotive face (often framed in a jarring close-up), she is able to evoke so much pain and tragedy (as well as a tough resiliency) easier than most actresses could do with spoken words. There is a moment towards the end of the film where Alma delivers a lengthy monologue but the shot is framed squarely on Ullmann’s face, and even more than Alma’s scathing indictment of Elisabet’s life, it is the sheer hurt on Ullmann’s face that makes the scene. In no way do I wish to discredit Bibi Andersson’s performanec. She is forced to do virtually all of the speaking of the film. And her characterization of the role constantly reveals hidden complexities in her character through her inhibitionless retellings of past indiscretions and a youthful broken heart. She also channels all of the jealousy and dangerous attachment with the right amount of build-up and eventual explosive intensity.

Discussing the themes of the film is just as tricky as a concise summation of the plot for anything too detailed runs the possibility of ruining the surprise for first-time viewers (though the surprise may not even exist for some viewers and may only be my interpretation of the plot). At its core though, the film was very reminiscent of the David Lynch film Inland Empire (I want to take back the Fellini comparisons I made in that particular review and replace them all with Bergman references) in that is about the artificial nature of storytelling and the various roles we inhabit whether as a person or as someone in the entertainment business. At one point before Alma and Elisabet leave for the beach, Elisabet’s psychiatrist supposes that Elisabet’s mutism is the result of her being tired of being split between so many different personalities and that her silence is the only way for her to achieve the truth. While that may be true on some level, there are also increasing levels of guilt and shame for obliquely referenced problems in her past as well as her inability to deal with human tragedies (signified through allusions to the Holocaust and the Vietnam War). Similarly, sexual guilt plays a heavy role in both women’s lives and a prolonged discussion of an exhibitionist sexual experience from Alma’s past proved to be one of the turning points of the film.

This is art house cinema at its artsiest. Often films like that can be mentally exhausting (eventually one’s mind stops being able to cope with Inland Empire during its epic three hour run), but at less than 90 minutes, Persona manages to keep your brain (and heart) fully engaged for every frame. Even when the film is at its most inscrutable (mainly the moments when it completely demolishes the proverbial fourth wall), it is a cinematic delight and the work of one of the true geniuses of the medium. For anyone with even the most passing interest in foreign cinema and intellectually demanding movies, this is must-watch. I’m now ashamed that I’m nearly 23 years old and still hadn’t seen an Ignmar Bergman film until just now. Without a doubt, this one of the best films I’ve watched for this blog, and it has actually inspired me to go back to a more regular movie watching schedule rather than the seemingly endless television and books that have taken up most of my writing for the last month and a half. Because if there are movies this great out there and I still haven’t seen them, I need to get back to my cinematic roots.

Final Score: A+