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Review: Ingmar Bergman documentary covers the Swedish director's genius, quirks and faults

Review: Ingmar Bergman documentary covers the Swedish director's genius, quirks and faults
Filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and German actress Gaby Dohm from the documentary "Searching for Ingmar Bergman." (Regine Koerner / Oscilloscope Laboratories)

True or false: The swaggering TV soap opera “Dallas” was conceived as an American version of Ingmar Bergman’s intimate drama “Scenes from a Marriage,” his 1973, six-part Swedish miniseries later condensed for theatrical consumption. The answer — true — is one of the more unlikely things to be learned from Margarethe von Trotta’s admiring, reflective documentary “Searching for Ingmar Bergman,” a chatty and enjoyable but decidedly nondefinitive look at one of the cinema’s most acclaimed, influential auteurs, who would have turned 100 this year.

It’s been a long time since Bergman’s somber, symbolic, psychodramatic brand of art film turned heads and sent critics into paroxysms of praise. Which raises the question (not quite answered here): Does Bergman, a nine-time Oscar nominee who directed more than 45 features and TV movies (most of which he wrote) between 1946 and 2003, remain such an iconic figure among filmmakers, scholars, historians and other cinephiles — older and younger?

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He clearly does to Von Trotta, who directed and co-wrote here with Felix Moeller (he also co-directed with Bettina Böhler). She has long counted herself among those irrevocably indebted to Bergman, starting with her first viewing of “The Seventh Seal,” his 1957 masterwork about life, death and chess.

Von Trotta begins “Searching” by intercutting clips from the famed opening scene of “Seal,” in which Max von Sydow’s Knight meets the monk-hooded Grim Reaper on a rocky beach, with shots of Von Trotta exploring the exact Swedish seaside location where “Seal” was filmed. It’s a kicky, stirring homage.

Interviews follow with such international filmmakers as Olivier Assayas (“Clouds of Sils Maria”), Ruben Östlund (“Force Majeure”), Carlos Saura (“The Spirit of the Beehive”) and Mia Hansen-Løve (“Things to Come”); several actresses (most notably the great Liv Ullman, still a dazzler) and other Bergman movie collaborators; and two of Bergman’s sons, Daniel and Ingmar Jr., plus a grandson — all of whom intriguingly weigh in on the filmmaker’s impact on their work and lives.

Complementing these folks’ heartfelt, passionate, at times amusing observations and anecdotes are provocative clips from some of Bergman’s best-known films, including “Wild Strawberries,” “Winter Light,” “Persona,” “Hour of the Wolf” and “Autumn Sonata,” which help stitch together a strong reminder of his distinct visual and emotional style. (Oddly, “Cries and Whispers,” one of Bergman’s most honored and infinitely dissectable movies, is omitted here.)

Archival chats and behind-the-scenes footage with Bergman are also peppered into this hopscotching portrait.

As reverent and ardent as those interviewed here may be about the writer-director, who also worked extensively in the theater, his many faults and quirks do not go unmentioned. Perhaps most significant was his contradictory attitude toward women: Although Bergman provided a host of fascinating, groundbreaking, sensual roles for such actresses as Ullman, Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson and Ingrid Thulin, his personal approach to his numerous lovers and wives was, according to son Daniel, far more selfish.

That he was less-than-devoted to the nine children he had among his five wives (plus Ullman) — each birth mainly serving to prove, at least in Bergman’s mind, these women’s love for him — is just one of several examples of his narcissism discussed here. It’s also said that Bergman was the real child of the bunch, a concept von Trotta smartly connects via clips from Bergman’s child-centric family epic, “Fanny and Alexander.”

Bergman’s self-imposed exile to Germany in 1976 after he was charged with tax evasion by Swedish authorities (the charges were later dropped) is also covered, along with a dissection of two of his lesser-seen films, “The Serpent’s Egg” and “From the Life of the Marionettes,” both of which mirrored his dark, alienated state during this period.

Von Trotta, who began her career as an actress and went on to direct such well-regarded films as “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum” (co-helmed by her then-husband, filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff), “The German Sisters” (a Bergman favorite) and, more recently, “Hannah Arendt,” spends much time here in front of the camera both as interviewer and solo participant. While that kind of self-insertion doesn’t always work in documentaries, Von Trotta’s captivating presence and many significant, real-life intersections with Bergman make her a welcome guide.

“Searching for Ingmar Bergman.”

Not rated.

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.

In German, English, Swedish, French and Spanish with English subtitles.

Playing: Laemmle Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles; Edwards Westpark 8, Irvine.

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