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Bibi Andersson

Review: Scenes from a Marriage

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

The same cramped space and abundance of facial closeups that Bergman used in Cries and Whispers dominate his latest film as well. In Scenes from a Marriage we are only infrequently offered relief from the claustrophobic intimacy resulting from Bergman’s preoccupation with the faces of Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. Indeed, at least one critic has commented on Bergman’s spare use of open exterior shots, without really delineating the analogy between the camera’s increasing freedom of movement as the movie progresses and the freedom gained by Johan and Marianne in their relationship. Their liaison becomes less one-sided and more of a healthy, complementary give-and-take union in which neither is forced into a role he or she may not be willing to assume—Johan as the dominant male whose efforts to initiate sex are often met with less than enthusiasm, Marianne as domestically submissive female (that she has a law career doesn’t seem to substantially alter this self-concept) who defines her life in terms of Johan’s. These are the very roles they play at the beginning of the movie during the interview with the journalist where all Marianne has to say is that she is his wife. In fact, it is not until the final segment of the film (“In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World”) that Bergman literally opens up in the way he makes use of space within the frame.

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Videophiled Essential: Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Persona’

The greatest leap in home video technology since Criterion released its first DVDs 15 years ago or so is the amazing improvement in mastering technology. With the digital revolution making digital prints the standard for cinema projection, the combination of elevates standards for film-to-digital quality and the HD standard of Blu-ray has brought near-cinema quality to home theater.

Persona (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) is the most recent of Criterion’s world classics mastered from 2K digital, this one a 2011 digital restoration by Svensk Filmindustri. And like the greatest restorations, this disc brings the best of film texture and digital clarity together for a stunning image. Persona is a film dominated by light and white, with stark figures against neutral backgrounds, warm sunlight, and the bright glare of a film projector, and those values are the kinds of things that get muddied in poor prints and digital masters. This disc looks like a 35mm fresh from the lab has been projected directly on my flatscreen.

Liv Ullman is revered stage actress Elisabeth Vogler, who is suddenly stricken speechless, and Bibi Andersson is the adoring young nurse Alma, who watches over her at a quiet seaside retreat, doing all the talking for both of them while she lays her soul bare to the actress. When Alma discovers the insensitive and condescending words about her in a letter Elisabeth has written, the roles of their relationship begins to shift and the intensity of feeling builds to point that, quite literally, stops the film dead. For a brief moment, Bergman reaches back to the origins of cinema, as if to recreate the artform in brief, abstracted images and rebuild the film around the two women.

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Blu-ray: ‘Wild Strawberries’

Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) followed his sunny, airy sex comedy Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), the first Bergman film to catch the international spotlight, and the dark medieval allegory The Seventh Seal (1957), where a knight’s faith is shaken by the death and cruelty of the crusades and the doom of the Black Plague sweeping through his home. Set in the present but tied to a past viewed through the lens of remembrance and dream, Wild Strawberries is more melancholy and introspective than Smiles and more hopeful and self-reflective than the enigmatic Seal. It is also more autobiographical, with details of aging protagonist Isak Borg’s past drawn from Bergman’s own childhood. To what extent Isak or his emotionally closed in son Evald Borg (note the initials EB) represent Bergman himself is open to question (he claimed Evald was based on his father), but such concerns are secondary to the film itself, an often painful drama but one of Bergman’s warmest and most touching films.

Victor Sjöström, an actor and the great Swedish director of the silent era (and one of Bergman’s heroes), plays Isak Borg, a widowed doctor living a quiet retirement in a lovely country home. He was coaxed out of retirement to play the fragile old man being presented with an honorary doctorate in the college town of Lund, and Bergman pays tribute to the director in the opening sequences of the film. Isak has a nightmare where he wanders through a sun-seared yet ghostly village, and the silent movie-like sequence recalls Sjöström’s 1921 masterpiece The Phantom Carriage, with its driverless hearse carrying the corpse of Isak himself through the streets. It’s unlikely that audiences of the time would make the connection, which makes the moment even more touching: a personal gesture from one artist acknowledging his debt to another.

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Review: It’s Raining in Santiago

[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]

A Franco-Bulgarian coproduction with Bulgaria standing in for Chilean locations, It’s Raining in Santiago seeks to reenact key events in the September 11, 1973, overthrow of the Allende regime, at the same time filling in crucial background from the time of Allende’s election as president several years before and, finally, taking a few glimpses at post-Allende Chile. Helvio Soto’s primary model is conspicuously, and understandably, Costa-Gavras. Like Costa-Gavras, Soto does not shrink from exploiting the turn-on value of high-octane melodramatic narrative in the interest of leftwing point-making. Like him, too, he keeps his camera, his cast, or both in motion as much as possible, knowing that at some primal, Panofskyan level this is satisfying to the moviewatcher who might otherwise be indisposed to sit still for either detailed exposition or political editorializing. His correct-minded good guys—notably Laurent Terzieff as a French correspondent, Ricardo Cucciolla (Vanzetti of Sacco and) as a Chilean newscaster turned presidential adviser, Maurice Garrel (the gaunt guerrilla veteran of Chabrol’s Nada) as a proletarian Allende man, and Jean-Louis Trintignant as a socialist senator—are uncomplicatedly swell, sensitive, family-, friend- and music-loving folks; the leftist students have long hair but are clearly very well-washed; the militarist/bourgeois/corporate bad guys display not a glimmer of wit, originality, or subtlety (let alone the troublingly appealing ambiguity of Yves Montand’s pig-in-the-terrorist-poke in State of Siege, or even Marcel Bozzuffi’s dopey enthusiasm as the homosexual hitman in Z). Hence, even as “a John Wayne entertainment for the Left” (Costa-Gavras’ phrase), It’s Raining in Santiago soon begins to pall.

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Review: Quintet

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Quintet is one of those things that Robert Altman makes from time to time: an unoriginal, lumberingly obvious, altogether hokey script coupled with a visual and aural atmosphere so overpowering that one wishes to forgive the film its lack of narrative integrity out of respect for what it does to the perception and the nerves. Indeed, a lesser director than Altman would be so forgiven; but remembering the more complete and narratively justified worlds of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Images, Nashville and 3 Women, one is harsher, less willing to settle for a half-realized world this time out. The film’s premise is arresting: the ice-world of McCabe and Mrs. Miller has become a whole future society, and tramping heavily coated through the snow is offered as a metaphor for playing the game of life. Cinematographer Jean Boffety’s lenses give every scene a vignette of foggy soft-focus, making the chill tangible, and stressing the fact that this is another Altman dreamfilm. Unlike 3 Women, however, this dream has been consigned to too many writers for fleshing-out, and Quintet emerges as a visually fascinating film with no more real substance than a snowball, its screenplay a botched mixture of self-congratulatory weirdness, flaccid imitation, labored moralism, and just an occasional moment of really disturbing brilliance.

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The Seventh Seal – DVD (and Blu-ray) of the Week

The Seventh Seal on Criterion Blu-ray
The Seventh Seal on Criterion Blu-ray

Arguably the most famous of Ingmar Bergman’s films and certainly his most iconic, The Seventh Seal is Bergman at his most allegorical. Max von Sydow, young and blond and heroic, is a disillusioned knight returned from the Crusades in a state of spiritual desperation: his faith has been shaken by senseless death and terrible cruelty he’s seen perpetrated in the name of a silent God. Coming home to find his own country ravaged by the Black Plague doesn’t help matters much and as he searches for some sign of a benevolent God, he plays a game of chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot), personified as a cloaked figure with a grim white face. Gunnar Björnstrand is his skeptical squire, suspicious of religion that plays upon and encourages the blind fears of a superstitious population and cynical about a culture that values human life so cheaply.

The landscape in the opening scenes mirrors the harsh reality of his existence: rocky, cold, with jagged cliffs that look torn out of the land, scrub grass hills with scraggly trees. Only in the domestic scenes of Jof (Nils Poppe) and his family, wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) and infant son Mikael, does the sun come out to warm their world with anything close to hope. And it’s that warmth, that hope, that promise of the future the knight sees in their love and their laughing child, that he is able to save by his simple sacrifice.

As I remembered from college, it’s full of heavy themes about faith and loss, about the meaning of life and the fear of death, with a lugubrious and introspective knight trying to hold onto his idealism in the face of a grim world and an unforgiving existence. What I had forgotten was the details: religion is a grotesquery of death and suffering, the strange and the sick are accused of being in league with the devil and are executed while the trembling devout lash themselves in penitence, offering their suffering as proof of their devotion, or as a sacrifice to a merciless God in exchange for sparing their lives. “They speak of Judgment Day,” says one. Things have not changed in 50 years or 500 or 1000 years.

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