SOLITARY INGMAR BERGMAN ON LIFE, LOVE AND DEATH, IN DOCUMENTARY STYLE
by Stephen Holden, from the The New York Times
“Not a day has gone by in my life when I haven’t thought about death,” Ingmar Bergman muses in the extended interview that forms the spine of “Bergman Island,” an extraordinarily revealing documentary portrait of this Swedish director at his home on the desolate Baltic Island of Faro.
His lifelong terror of it diminished, he says, after anesthesia for surgery rendered him unconscious for several hours. If this is what death is like, he says he remembers thinking afterward, it is nothing to be afraid of. Until then he harbored “an insane fear” of it that was channeled into his film “The Seventh Seal.” The image of a knight playing chess with death in that film came from a painting in a church he visited with his father in Uppland.
Since his recovery from surgery, he says, his fear has undergone further modification. Because he acutely senses the presence on the island of Ingrid Karlebo, the last of his five wives, who died in 1995 after 23 years of marriage, he is certain that she is present and that his lack of consciousness under anesthesia was merely a “chemical reaction,” an “artificial death.” When he dies, he now believes, he may actually be reunited with her.
For those Bergman admirers to whom he looms as a magisterial artistic sentinel gazing grimly into eternity, his words hold out some comfort. As for the existence of God, he believes that intimations of divinity can be found in the classical music with which he surrounds himself and in what he calls “human holiness.”
Mr. Bergman recalls first visiting the island in 1960 to make “Through a Glass Darkly,” and it is also where five more films, including “Persona,” were shot. Since moving there in January 2004, he says, he sometimes goes for days without speaking to anyone. He says he plans to stay for the rest of his days.
A dour humor twinkles through his introspection. He follows a rigorous daily routine that includes a brisk morning walk because, as he puts it: “The demons don’t like fresh air. What they like best is if you stay in bed with cold feet.”
This intimate, compelling film, which opens today at the Film Forum in Manhattan, confirms what any astute viewer of his films has probably guessed: that they are intensely autobiographical. His revised thoughts on death, for instance, are articulated in a monologue in “Saraband,” his recent made-for-television sequel to “Scenes From a Marriage.” And the turning point in “Scenes From a Marriage,” in which a husband bluntly informs his wife that he has fallen in love with another woman and is leaving, also came directly from his life.
The parent-child dynamics of “Fanny and Alexander” are reflections of his relationship with his father, who flew into terrible rages, and his mother, who adored him but pushed him away after a pediatrician recommended that she deal severely with his excessive crying and neediness. He has inherited his father’s fierce temper, he admits, along with a tendency to hold grudges.
Looking back at his five marriages, many lovers and his indifference to family life, he is aghast at his own cruelty at the same time that he is strangely unapologetic. Creating movies and theater, he explains, is a profoundly erotic experience in which the director and the actors strive to be perfect for one another. And Mr. Bergman, who in his late 80s still cuts a distinguished figure, was movie-star handsome as a younger man.
“I usually say I left puberty at 58,” he says. And old photos and film clips of him with the luminous beauties Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann, who co-starred in “Persona” and who each had been his lover, show beautiful people who must have been irresistible to one another. Except for his union with Ingrid, whom he married in 1971, each of his marriages lasted roughly five years. He sired nine children (including one with Ms. Ullmann).
Marie Nyrerod, the interviewer, who directed the movie, doesn’t shy away from asking painful questions relating to Mr. Bergman’s parenting, and he responds with a bluntness that is as disturbing as it is candid.
“I had a bad conscience until I discovered that having a bad conscience about something so gravely serious as leaving your children is an affectation, a way of achieving a little suffering that can’t for a moment be equal to the suffering you’ve caused,” he says. “I haven’t put an ounce of effort into my families. I never have.”
Such carelessness, I suppose, is the license of an Olympian.
“My Dad Is 100 Years Old,” the brilliant, zany little companion piece to “Bergman Island,” is also a biography but a seriously whimsical one.
Written by Isabella Rossellini and directed by Guy Maddin, the prolific Canadian surrealist whose films are swirling, allusive montages of cinematic esoterica, this 16-minute black-and-white film is Ms. Rossellini’s heartfelt centenary tribute to her father, Roberto, the Italian neo-realist pioneer who died in 1977. He is represented by a giant, swollen belly, against which his daughter lovingly presses her cheek. Throughout the film she speaks for him in a double-tracked, echoing voice resounding from the Great Beyond.
The movie imagines a directorial summit in which Mr. Rossellini argues the never-ending art-versus-entertainment debate with Alfred Hitchcock, David O. Selznick, Federico Fellini and Charlie Chaplin, all played by Ms. Rossellini. These cinematic legends mince no words. Fellini, a Rossellini protégé, is accused of betraying his mentor by creating a cinema of “dreams and sex.” Hitchcock dismisses Mr. Rossellini’s films as “slow, boring and poorly made.”
Mr. Rossellini stands up to the assault, supported by his daughter, who also plays her mother, Ingrid Bergman, reminiscing. When all is said and done, she declares, “the simplicity and starkness” of her father’s films “moves me profoundly.”
“My Dad Is 100 Years Old” compacts more ideas about movies in its 16 minutes than most films express in 2 hours.
Opens today in Manhattan.
Produced and directed by Marie Nyrerod; in Swedish, with English subtitles; director of photography, Arne Carlsson; edited by Kurt Bergmark; released by SVT Sales. Shown with a 16-minute short, Guy Maddin’s film “My Dad Is 100 Years Old,” written by Isabella Rossellini, at the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. Running time: 85 minutes. These films are not rated.