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Smultronstallet, 1957
[Wild Strawberries]

Thulin/SjostromWild Strawberries captures the thoughtful and compassionate side of Ingmar Bergman rarely seen in his films. It is the story of an aging man's introspective journey on the meaning of his life, and inevitability of death. Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom) is compiling his memoirs in preparation for an honorary degree that he is to receive for 50 years of medical practice. After an incomprehensible nightmare, he impulsively changes his travel plans, and decides to drive to Lund with his daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin). Marianne is separated from his son, Evald (Gunnar Bjornstrand), but decides to go home and reconcile with him. The road to Lund is a reluctant path that takes Professor Borg through his youth: the family's summer cottage, the town he served as a physician, and his mother's house. He meets a young hitchhiker named Sara (Bibi Andersson) who reminds him of first love. He rescues a stranded, verbally abusive husband and his suffering wife, who undoubtedly reflect his cruelty to his late wife. In the course of their journey, he confronts his past failures, and reconciles with his life, and mortality.

Allegorical dreams are integral to the film's theme. Professor Borg's runaway carriage dream is similar to the dream sequence in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, signifying the burden of life, guilt, and inescapability of death. The dream is obscure and surreal, as if the mind is in denial of its fate. In contrast, the summer cottage dream is lucid, nostalgic, and melancholy. Professor Borg reluctantly awakens from it with a profound sense of loss and regret. His most unsettling dream occurs in a lecture hall because it is a place that has defined his existence. Having become alienated from his family, and denied his skills, his life, and legacy, are lost. The final dream occurs after he attempts to reunite Evald and Marianne. Recalling a family picnic by the lake, the effect is warm, peaceful, and redemptive. It is a subtly beautiful affirmation of reconciliation and closure.

© Acquarello 1997. All rights reserved.

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Jungfrukällan (1960)
[The Virgin Spring]


Valberg/von SydowIn the darkness of a breaking dawn, a lascivious, unmarried, expectant woman named Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom) dispassionately performs her morning ritual: preparing a fire on the stove, opening the roof door in order to allow the daylight to stream in, invoking the Norse god Odin in an envious and vengeful plea. In another room, the feudal landowner Töre (Max von Sydow) and his wife Märeta (Birgitta Valberg) solemnly recite their morning prayers and perform a symbolic act of penitence in remembrance of Jesus Christ's suffering, before joining the tenant farmers and servants at the communal table. Their coddled, fanciful, and vain daughter, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), is noticeably absent from the breakfast table after spending a late evening at the village dance, and Märeta is quick to excuse her oversleeping as a symptom of an ensuing illness. Töre reminds Märeta of Karin's obligation to bring the Virgin Mary candles to church, and criticizes Märeta's excessive leniency towards their only surviving child. Karin reluctantly awakens and eventually agrees to bring the candles to church, but only after cajoling Märeta into allowing her to wear a lavish and elaborate dress that has been set aside for the church offering. Accompanied by Ingeri, Karin journeys through the dark and ominous forest and soon finds her faith and humanity tested when she encounters a desperate, lawless, and morally bankrupt band of goat herdsmen.


Adapted from a fourteenth century Swedish legend by screenwriter and novelist Ulla Isaksson, The Virgin Spring is a harrowing, yet ultimately affirming portrait of faith, humanity, and atonement. Using chiaroscuro imagery that interplays light and shadows, Ingmar Bergman reflects the process of spiritual illumination in the transitional era of the Middle Ages where mysticism, amorality, and paganism coexisted with the period of intellectual, artistic, and religious enlightenment: the opening image of Ingeri performing her chores that transitions into an illuminated crucifix as Töre and Märeta pray; the physical dissimilarity between the fair haired Karin and the dark haired "adopted" Ingeri; the stark visual contrast between the dark and claustrophobic interiors of the farmhouse and the sunlit path along the stream; the light precipitation of snow after the brothers' unconscionable act. As Ingeri (the allusional fallen sinner, Mary Magdalene) becomes a witness to the manifestation of secular discord and divine grace, she follows her own figurative path from religious darkness and moral bankruptcy to a state of spiritual baptism and enlightenment.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Sasom i en spegel, 1961
[Through a Glass Darkly]

Andersson/PassgardFour people emerge from the austere horizon, heading for the shore of a seemingly desolate island: a successful writer, David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), his adolescent son, Minus (Lars Passgard), his fragile daughter, Karin (Harriet Andersson), and Karin's husband, Martin (Max von Sydow). Surrounded by her family, Karin is brought to the remote island in order to facilitate her recuperation from a nervous breakdown. But it is soon evident that her family is so consumed by their own frailties and self-absorption that they are impotent to prevent a psychotic relapse. David studies her with a clinical detachment of a psychological experiment. Martin's medical training proves ineffectual as he attempts to alleviate her anguish by consenting to her delusions. Minus is preoccupied with his own sexual awakening, and sees Karin as a convenient insight into the female psyche. Like most Bergman films, Through a Glass Darkly is a portrait of loneliness and alienation. Note the perfectly framed, shattering scene where David cries uncontrollably upon realizing how distant he and his children have grown. Another is Minus' plea to God as he retrieves a blanket for Karin. As in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Red, emotional honesty is revealed in moments of isolation.

Through a Glass Darkly is the first film of Ingmar Bergman's religious chamber trilogy, influenced by the minimal instrumentation of chamber music. The film is visually spare, stark, and metaphoric. Note Karin's disintegration inside the hull of a shipwreck, symbolizing the tormented soul. It is a brooding, highly personal film that seeks validation for Bergman's religious upbringing and the essence of God. David tells Minus: "I don't know if love proves God's existence, or love is God Himself." In the end, Karin sees God behind the attic door - and it is a cold, stony faced spider - a painful reflection of her own family's deceptive love: a false god.

© Acquarello 1999. All rights reserved.

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Nattvardsgasterna, 1963
[The Communicants/Winter Light]

BjornstrandThe order of mass is methodically performed before a dwindling congregation: a school teacher, Marta (Ingrid Thulin), a troubled parishioner, Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) and Jonas' wife, Karin (Gunnel Lindblom). But the ritual no longer holds any significance for its messenger, pastor Tomas (Gunnar Bjornstrand), who has a crisis of faith. Note several framed shots of a fevered, anguished Tomas juxtaposed against a sculpture of the Crucifixion. Distant and cruel to the woman who loves him (symbolically, Marta's skin condition is a literal rejection of the flesh), he is passionless and mechanical. When an angst ridden, suicidal Jonas seeks guidance on a perceived imminent nuclear holocaust, doubting Tomas can only offer his own uncertainty, and cannot save him.

Perhaps the most spiritually bleak and visually stark of Ingmar Bergman's religious chamber series, Winter Light, the second film of the trilogy, is a transitional film, both thematically and conceptually. It marks Bergman's final exploration of religious faith, and serves as a prelude to the human relational drama of his subsequent work. Similar to Through a Glass Darkly, minimal cast, dialogue, and scenery pervade the film, distilling the atmosphere, and story, to its fundamental essence: God's silence. The use of monologues, prolonged silences, and extreme close-ups convey character introspection and emotional isolation. Furthermore, the barren landscape, seasonal climate, and Tomas' illness serve to further reflect the cold emptiness of his soul. In the end, Tomas returns to the sanctity of the ceremonial mass - the one constant in his life - ministering the hollow words for those who seek comfort behind their meaning, deriving from them a reflection of their own spirituality and emotional equilibrium: an echo god.

© Acquarello 1999. All rights reserved.

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Tystnaden, 1963
[The Silence]

Lindblom/Lindstrom/ThulinThree passengers suffocate in the sweltering heat of a confining train cabin, traveling through a foreign country, seemingly on the brink of war: a fragile translator, Esther (Ingrid Thulin), her sister Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), and Anna's son Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom). Suffering from a bronchial attack, Esther checks into a hotel room, with Anna and Johan occupying the adjoining suite. Soon, Esther's excessive attachment proves too stifling for the sensual Anna, who leaves them and goes to a night club. The bedridden Esther indulges herself with cigarettes and alcohol, attempting to suppress her pain. Johan is left to his own devises and explores the near desolate hotel, encountering a kind, elderly hotel manager, and a dwarf carnival troupe. Distant at first towards his ailing aunt, Johan inevitably develops an understanding towards her, drawn together by their mutual love for Anna and sense of abandonment. The following day, still unable to travel, Esther gives Johan a letter containing a list of helpful translations for their journey, and she is left behind.

The Silence, Ingmar Bergman's final installment in his chamber series, is arguably the most abstract and nihilistic film of the trilogy. As Winter Light explored spiritual bankruptcy, The Silence is an examination of emotional isolation in a world without God - where salvation lies in human connection. Figuratively, Esther has the linguistical faculties to communicate, but physical frailty and fear of rejection prevent her from being understood. Anna, on the other hand, seeks emotional intimacy through physical contact, and is also, invariably, misunderstood. Thematically, Bergman conveys alienation through geography, partitions, darkness, and non-confronting dialogue. The use of mirrors further provides discontinuity, creating a sense of distance. Note the use of Esther's mirror image in her "dialogue" with the hotel manager as she attempts to order another bottle of liquor, emphasizing the language barrier. Another scene shows Esther observing Anna's reflection from the adjoining room as she washes her face, suggesting the fractured intimacy between them. After a prolonged, convulsive attack, Esther implores God to allow her to die in her own homeland. In the end, she is left to die, alone and suffering, in a strange land: unanswered prayers by an absent God.

© Acquarello 1999. All rights reserved.

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Persona, 1966

Andersson/UllmanPersona is arguably Ingmar Bergman's most challenging and experimental film. Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullman) is an accomplished stage actress who, in the middle of performing Elektra, ceases to speak. Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson), the young nurse assigned to care for her, learns that there is nothing physically or even psychologically wrong with Elisabeth - she has simply, consciously decided not to speak. Alma (the name, not accidentally, is the Spanish word for soul) describes her initial impressions of Elisabeth as gentle and childlike, but with strict eyes. She takes Elisabeth to the attending physician's remote summer house to facilitate her recuperation. At first, the two seem ideally suited: a talkative, candid, and inexperienced nurse, and a sophisticated, enigmatic, and silent patient. They take long walks, bask in the sun, and read together. It is obvious that their isolation has cultivated a sense of intimacy between them, albeit one-sided. But it is a curious attachment. At first, Alma attempts to fill the void of Elisabeth's silence. She talks incessantly about her life, unburdening her soul to the seemingly attentive patient. But soon, it is obvious that Elisabeth's interest is more than mere politeness or voyeuristic curiosity. She is, in fact, "willing" her identity - the facade she created as Elisabeth Vogler - to the mentally weaker Alma. Elisabeth's struggle for absolute transference - the proverbial battle for the soul - is a means of further divorcing herself from the pain of her own existence. Persona is a provocative, highly cerebral, and artistically complex depiction of human frailty, cruelty, and identity.

Bergman uses minimal composition and extremely tight close-ups to illustrate the theme of psychological deconstruction. Note the prevalent use of single camera shots throughout the duration of a scene. The lack of camera movement forces us to study the characters' faces. Persona, after all, as the title suggests, is not about who the person actually is, but the different identities, or facades, that the person projects. Figuratively, Elisabeth Vogler, having played the role of celebrity, wife, and mother, has decided to abandon her persona and walk off the stage. A variation on the idea of duality provides an essential ingredient to the plot development. The themes of experience, children, and romantic relationships take on very different meanings for the two women. Alma seems to covet what Elisabeth has, but she has deliberately chosen other paths. Note the monologue that is shown twice: one showing a close-up of Alma, and the other of Elisabeth. It is a scene about regret, frustration, and denial. The effect illustrates how different, and yet similar, these two women are... and how cruel and destructive the human will can be.

© Acquarello 1998. All rights reserved.

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Viskningar och rop, 1972
[Cries and Whispers]

Thulin/UllmanCries and Whispers is a powerful, richly textured exploration of the human soul. The story is set on a remote country house, stripped from the distractions of the outside world (the only "guest" is an attending physician). Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is a terminally ill woman who is cared for by her two sisters: Karin (Ingrid Thulin), repressed and domineering, and Maria (Liv Ullman), sensual and indecisive. However, her only source of comfort is the devoted, nurturing maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan). As with other Bergman films, most notably Autumn Sonata, the film is a heartbreaking portrait of pain and regret, of things left unsaid and undone, until it is too late. Agnes's slow, agonizing death is shattering, especially as she futilely struggles to reconcile the sisters, as her languid, convulsive frame strains each breath. Unable to reunite her sisters, her tortured soul can only grieve in incoherent gasps. Similar to Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, death confers a profound revelation whose meaning escapes the survivors. Cries and Whispers is a beautifully devastating story of isolation, communication, love, and death.

Ingmar Bergman resisted using color as a novelty. His use of color in the film is precise and deliberate. Contrast the pale, muted landscape to the rich, deep colors inside the house. The color red, featured prominently in the film (as in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Red) is used to create a multifaceted visual theme. The effect is one of immersion: a soul foundering in the corporal life blood, a stifling, forced intimacy arising from absence and isolation, and a body slowly consumed by illness. Cries and Whispers is a remarkable film of intoxicating beauty and extraordinary depth, a sublime work of art from a true master.

© Acquarello 1997. All rights reserved.

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Hostsonaten, 1978
[Autumn Sonata]

Ullman/BergmanAutumn Sonata is a provocative, moving, and intensely honest film about the complexity of familial relationships. Eva (Liv Ullman), a timid and reserved wife of a country parson, invites her mother, Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman), to stay with her after a seven year separation. Charlotte is a concert pianist, whose career has dictated prolonged separations from her family. Having recently experienced the death of her husband, Charlotte is eager to rekindle her relationship with her daughter. However, their congenial reunion is short-lived, as Eva begins to confront her mother's alienated affection.

If the exquisite craftsmanship of the great Ingmar Bergman is insufficient reason to watch this film, then consider the tour-de-force performances of Liv Ullman and the legendary Ingrid Bergman. Note the understated power of a piano scene where the inhibited Eva, longing for approbation, plays a Chopin prelude (I can see at least ten different expressions on Ullman's face as she hits some clinkers during the piece, and equally as many on Bergman's face as she tries not to betray the idea that she realizes how badly her daughter is playing). Then, as Charlotte takes her confident place in front of the piano, a revelation comes over Eva's countenance, as she finds the void of her mother's absence in the animated keys of the piano.

It is impossible to describe the tenuous, emotionally charged scene that is at the heart of this film. It is an exploration of guilt, regret, and pain. To trivialize this eviscerating exchange as "wordy" (as I have seen in some misguided reviews) is unfair. It is a verbal catharsis - the inevitable release of harbored frustration and anger - punctuated with the hesitance of a daughter who deeply loves her mother, but sometimes cannot accept her faults. The scene, and indeed the film itself, speaks volumes about the need for acceptance and connection.

Bergman, as in Cries and Whispers, uses thematic colors that suffuse the film. In Autumn Sonata, the color palette is appropriately fall: pale greens, pumpkin orange, muted yellows, and earth tones. Note the colors of the parsonage, the wardrobe, and the season in which the film takes place. The theme is especially suited to the story of a mother in the twilight of her career ...and life (Ms. Bergman was battling cancer when the film was made), seeking to find reconciliation and closure. It also creates an atmosphere that is warm and inviting, a woman coming home at the end of her journey. It is, however, a journey that has only begun.

© Acquarello 1998. All rights reserved.

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Aus dem Leben der Marionetten, 1980
[From the Life of Marionettes]

Atzorn/BucheggerIn a garishly decorated basement room of a tawdry, erotic cabaret, amidst the ambient pulsating, rhythmic drone of risqué music, an impassive prostitute nicknamed Ka (Rita Russek) embraces a solemn and diffident client, Peter Egermann (Robert Atzorn), caressing his face through the motions of sleep. The seemingly tender moment soon inexplicably turns to aggression when Peter violently reaches for Ka's throat and begins to choke her - a ferocious impulse that culminates with her brutal and unconscionable murder and violation. The film then proceeds in black and white as Peter's psychiatrist, Professor Mogens Jensen (Martin Benrath), is summoned to appear before the police investigation board and provide a deposition on his encounter with Peter on the dawn after the murder, prompted by the patient's cryptic early morning telephone call to his private residence. Jensen reveals that Peter had sought treatment after being haunted by dreams of murdering his loving, but unfaithful wife Katarina (Christine Buchegger). However, the façade of Jensen's impartiality and professionalism is soon stripped away when, after expediting the already suspicious Peter's departure with a trivialized excuse for a subsequent patient appointment, he invites Katarina to his home office for a late afternoon rendezvous. Gradually, the seemingly irreconcilable relationships in Peter's tormented life are revealed through temporal fragments of inquiries and conversations with his adulterous wife Katerina; her business partner Tim (Walter Schmidinger), an insecure, aging homosexual who harbors an unrequited attraction towards the melancholic Peter; and Peter's mother Cordelia Egermann (Lola Müthel), a renowned actress who revels in her delusion of self-martyrdom after sacrificing her career for her children.

Filmed during Ingmar Bergman's self-imposed exile in Germany after a protracted and acrimonious dispute with Swedish authorities on charges of income tax evasion, From the Life of Marionettes is a challenging, visually hypnotic, and atypically voluptuous film that reflects Bergman's own personal struggle with alienation, estrangement, and psychological duress. Bergman visually contrasts the color-saturated sequences of the film's prologue and epilogue with the austere, high contrast black and white episodes that encapsulate the chronicled activities of the characters before and after the murder. The conflated, multi-perspective narrative structure of the interviews creates an interconnected - and seemingly inescapable - sense of hermetic insularity that reflects Peter's depression, ambivalence, and entrapment: Jensen's testimony on Peter's behavior after the murder that illustrates Peter's discovery of his wife's emotional betrayal; Peter's unsent letter to Jensen that alludes to his feelings of inadequacy through a sensual, yet turbulent dream about Katarina; Tim's admission of his subversive manipulation of the Egermanns relationship that reveals his own fears and desires. Interweaving reality and illusion, consciousness and dreams, and past and present, From the Life of Marionettes presents a provocative and haunting portrait of disconnection, repression, emotional violence, and intimacy.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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