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Reconnecting with one-time cinema god Ingmar Bergman, subject of a major L.A. retrospective

Ingmar Bergman, left, lines up a shot with his Academy Award-winning cinematographer Sven Nykvist for the director's last film, "Fanny and Alexander."
(Embassy Pictures)
Film Critic

Once he was a god, the symbol of cinema’s greatness, so revered that when fellow director Alejandro G. Iñárritu visited his idol’s remote island home he exclaimed, “If cinema was a religion, this would be Mecca, the Vatican … the center of it all.”

Then, like all gods, Ingmar Bergman fell from grace. Yes, he’d won three Oscars and was nominated for nine more, but that was then, this is now.

In a world where genre and formalism were increasingly the reigning critical deities, Bergman’s zeal for rich emotion, for dramatizing philosophical concerns and engaging with profound human questions seemed outdated at best.

When Bergman died in 2007, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote an iconoclastic reassessment for the New York Times that ran under the headline “Scenes From an Overrated Career.” As a recent piece in the British journal Sight & Sound noted, there have been times when the Swedish director’s films “might be considered so willfully opaque and mired in symbolism as to be past the point of parody.”

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But against the odds and just in time for this year’s 100th anniversary of his birth, the reappraisals are being reappraised and Bergman is coming back.

Two documentaries on his career, “Searching for Ingmar Bergman” and “Bergman: A Year In the Life,” will premiere at Cannes, a stage version of his “Fanny and Alexander” is doing well in London and here in Los Angeles “Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema,” a retrospective unprecedented in its scope, begins Friday and lasts till the end of June.

It’s not just that over 30 films will be shown out of the director’s 47, all newly restored by the Swedish Film Institute — it’s that for the first time in memory seven often competing venues across the city will cooperate to share the wealth.

Bengt Ekerot, left, and Max Von Sydow in a scene from Ingmar Bergan's "The Seventh Seal."
(Janus Films )

The Egyptian and Aero branches of the American Cinematheque; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the UCLA Film & Television Archive; and Laemmle’s Royal, Playhouse and Town Center will all combine to take the measure of the man, which says something in and of itself.

On more of a personal level, the breadth of this series provided the opportunity to reconnect with and revisit Bergman, to take stock of how his work resonates today, both with me and the culture at large.

After dipping in and out of more than a dozen of the films on view (courtesy of the Criterion Collection, which distributes them for home use), perhaps the most striking thing is how fortuitously the stars aligned for this man to flourish.

Not only did the fates provide Bergman with the brilliant cinematographer Sven Nykvist (who shot 28 of his films) but also a troupe of world-class actors — Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow, Ingrid Thulin, Erland Josephson, Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson and more — right in his own backyard.

It’s also clear that the somber, joyless Bergman films that loom so large in his reputation are not the only ones he made.

For one thing, it’s chastening to remember that this country’s first exposure to Bergman came when exploitation pioneer Kroger Babb, “America’s Fearless Showman,” recut his 1953 “Summer With Monica” and released it as a straight-ahead exploitation film, “Monica, the Story of a Bad Girl!” You could look it up.

Equally surprising, the film that made Bergman’s international reputation by winning a prize at Cannes in 1956 was a romantic comedy the likes of which you would not have thought the director had in him.

A sly and worldly sex farce, “Smiles of a Summer Night” centers on a stuffy attorney, his young wife, his former paramour-actress and her current military lover who’s given to saying things like “my wife may cheat on me but if anyone touches my mistress I become a tiger.”

These characters and others, who simultaneously mock love and fall prey to it, is entertaining enough to have inspired Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” so you’d better believe its aim is true.

When looking at what came next for Bergman, it makes sense to break his output into three categories, with viewers free to choose which Bergman is closest to their hearts.

The first, containing later 1950s films such as “The Magician” and “The Seventh Seal” and culminating in 1960’s “The Virgin Spring,” are the durable classics that made Bergman an international brand name.

Lauded for their vivid, almost melodramatic storytelling combined with a willingness to probe serious questions about meaning in life, these films helped validate the unlikely notion, not universally accepted by the broader culture in the 1950s, of film as a consequential art form that could plumb emotional and psychological depths as well if not better than any medium.

Though these films seemed to come out of nowhere for international audiences, for followers of Scandinavian cinema they connected with earlier silent-era work by directors like Victor Sjostrom, Mauritz Stiller and Carl Theodor Dryer.

Bergman himself underlined this link by starring Sjostrom in perhaps the most resonant of these films, “Wild Strawberries,” where the actor creates a wonderful sense of memory and regret playing an old man coming to terms with his life as he relives and reimagines his past.

While almost all these films in fact took place in that past, Bergman’s next phase was relentlessly contemporary, a lacerating group of often forbidding films like “Through a Glass Darkly,” “Persona” and “Cries and Whispers” that took on alienation, spiritual doubt and fraught interpersonal relationships. (“Casablanca” star Ingrid Bergman playing Liv Ullmann’s unbending mother in “Autumn Sonata” is a stringent example.)

My personal Bergman preference, however, is yet a third incarnation, the Bergman who, reputation be damned, echoed the filmmaker of “Smiles of A Summer Night” by emphasizing warmth and shared humanity over despair.

Films, for instance, like the director’s luminous rendition of the Mozart opera “The Magic Flute,” joining some of the most joyous music ever written to some gloriously silly on-screen shenanigans. When a character announces near the end, “you have subdued death and despair,” we feel this is exactly so.

Perhaps my favorite in this category is 1983’s “Fanny and Alexander,” Bergman’s last theatrical film. Though it has its darker moments, no Bergman venture has ever been so warm, so understanding, so forgiving of human foibles. Having spent most of a lifetime exploring the darkness, Bergman, as it turns out, is uniquely suited to lead us into the light.

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Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema

American Cinematheque Egyptian Theatre, Hollywood — May 4-12

American Cinematheque Aero Theatre, Santa Monica — May 16-20

Laemmle’s Playhouse, Pasadena, Royal, West Los Angeles, Town Center, Encino — May 15

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles — May 1-29

UCLA Film and Television Archive, Hammer Museum, Westwood — June 9, 23

kenneth.turan@latimes.com


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