Bergman in bloom: BAMPFA finishes Bergman 100 film series

New Doc 2018-12-17 08.28.11
Olivia Staser/Staff

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With the downfall of FilmStruck, the loud presence of pop culture in our lives through social media and Oscar season barrelling to the forefront of entertainment industry news, it is easy to forget to pay attention to the classics. The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, or BAMPFA, is standing tall in the face of this struggle, reminding us that many of the overshadowed films and filmmakers of the past are still very important and very relevant today.

Throughout 2018, BAMPFA, has been screening a series of director Ingmar Bergman’s works entitled “Bergman 100.” Every month has presented a new theme for the series, and likewise, a new set of Bergman films have been screened. Whether it be films from the beginning of his emerging career to accompany the budding spring or films to match the adventure of summer, BAMPFA’s Bergman series has proved beautifully versatile and magically niche.

In the final weeks of 2018, the series is coming to a close with its final installment, “Bergman 100: Full Circle.” This final series highlights a collection of milestone films for the director, from the already screened “Persona” to Bergman’s magnum opus “Fanny and Alexander.” In this, Bergman is reimagined and revived on the screen, bringing his reflective and evocative realism and character study to life.

Maisy Menzies

“Persona” (1966)

For Bergman, dialogue is generally more of a side note than a focal point in his art — what his films convey is not contained within the words characters speak but in his visuals. In “Persona,” Bergman does not stray from this focus on aesthetics, highlighting them to the nth degree to make the film as striking as it is. “Persona” may not be an easy film to understand, demanding more than one viewing to decipher — but, then again, all Bergman films serve more as cerebral exercises than mindless entertainment.

In “Persona,” Alma, a nurse, tries to help Elizabeth, an actress who stopped speaking in the middle of a performance and has not been able to speak since. The two stay in a beach house so that Alma can attempt to cure Elizabeth. Over the course of their stay, the two of them experience themselves converging.

There is something extremely unsettling about this film — probably because of the fact that it delves into the deepest and darkest questions about human nature that exist. “Persona” touches on some of the most enigmatic human issues. For instance, Alma gives a hauntingly honest monologue about wanting to be a mother but not wanting to bear the burden of the child. As Bergman continues to toy with ideas of reality and perception, the stories Alma tells are so vivid that it feels as if they are shown on screen, when in reality viewers only see her telling the stories.

As a timeless classic, “Persona” is a film that can be revisited again and again, allowing the audience to glean even more from each viewing. Its images are so rich and its ideas so universal that “Persona” is an essential viewing experience, not only for all lovers of Bergman but also for all those who regard cinema as an art form.

Julia Mears

“Scenes from a Marriage” (1973)

In 1973, departing from his typical dramatic feature-length films, Bergman wrote and directed a six-part television miniseries about a marriage that slowly dissolves over the course of 10 years. Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage” would eventually be condensed into a film version as well. The director even created a 2003 sequel, “Saraband” that would ultimately serve as his last release.

The impact of the original miniseries — a raw, often painful extended look at the lives of divorce lawyer Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and college professor Johan (Erland Josephson) as they struggle to balance their professional, family and romantic spheres — is palpable.

The audience meets Marianne and Johan, a wealthy and prominent couple with two young daughters, about 10 years into their marriage. The couple is being interviewed for a magazine special on love, photographed in close and loving positions while being asked questions about their decision to renew their marriage contract after their recent 10th anniversary. The sequence with the reporter epitomizes the false pretenses that Marianne and Johan operate under in the public eye, as their own relationship is disintegrating behind closed doors. Bergman explores the duality of their romance — the divide between the love that they must portray to their friends, family and the general public and their hostility and lack of passion toward each other — over the course of the series, while exploring the roles of sex, infidelity and property in the progression of their marriage.

With its extended runtime, “Scenes from a Marriage” gives Bergman the opportunity to include more nuance in his narrative and more complexity in the film’s visual components. Drawing upon his own experiences to craft a dramatic, and yet authentic, dialogue, Bergman can be credited with creating one of the earliest and greatest portrayals of a strained relationship on screen.

Anagha Komaragiri

“Shame” (1968)

In Bergman’s 1968 film “Shame,” the effects of war and trauma ripple through the lives of a wife and husband named Eva and Jan. Played by Bergman’s all-star actors Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow, they navigate the progressively absurd and horrific civil war landscape on an unknown island — with no discernable distinction between the two brawling sides. The film always keeps the audience guessing, a gentle breakfast could be broken up by a bombing, or the gunfire halts, and the sounds of the birds return. With an ending tonally reminiscent of playwright Sarah Kane’s works and “Lord of the Flies,” the couple survives the war only to be torn apart by their inability to gain control.

The ironies of war never become comical, made surreal enough to allow for the nuance of each performance to shine through. The ruthless army bureaucrat nudges the space heater closer to him with his cane, highlighting his own individual fragility. Jan’s fragile nerves are constantly shot, yet he still feels the need to hide when he cries, while Eva’s constant strength and exhaustion pour through each scene. The couple is continually harangued and hustled by powers greater than them, and in these moments of cold physicality, the audience strains to find both of them together, looking for any glimmer that their bond can hold out. Other victims lament their own individualization, but they remain independent of any grounded emotional relationship. Only Eva and Jan matter — only their world is truly lost.

And the destruction of their lives often appears spatially; their house being destroyed over and over, their chickens decapitated. Like 2017’s “Mother!” the characters are as helpless as their lived space, the space that they hold so sacred. As the film goes on, Eva and Jan begin committing brutally inhumane acts to survive, falling deeper and deeper into despair and desperation. The last third of the movie is as gorgeous as it is monstrous, and though the couple scrapes by, the rift between them remains and their relationship is left permanently scarred.

Charlie Kruse

“Faithless” (2000)

“Faithless” is an intriguing companion to the series’ collection of Bergman’s films — though Bergman wrote the script, the film was directed by Bergman’s longtime artistic collaborator and former partner Liv Ullmann. Her touch on the material is unmistakable, as she offers a distinct sense of an actor’s eye through the layered approach to narrative form.

The main innovation of this film is the use of a parallel narrative, which offers a grim depiction of relationships and how we interpret them. “Faithless” begins with an elderly man (Erland Josephson) having a mysterious conversation with Marianne (Lena Endre), who narrates her story, which becomes the second “track” of the film’s plot. “Faithless” oscillates between these two scenarios, with the former acting as an apparent confessional to the tragedy Marianne describes.

In the latter plotline, Marianne tells of how her outwardly happy marriage came to fall apart. Her life with husband Markus (Thomas Hanzon), an orchestra conductor, initially seems content, though shades of violence and deeper issues surface in intimate moments. Marianne then embarks on an affair with her coworker and Markus’ best friend David (Krister Henriksson). The affair, which starts as a lust-fueled distraction, eventually puckers in on itself outside of the light of blind romance, becoming dangerous and unhappy.

The story sometimes plays out against the background of the theater where Marianne and David work, as the performances of the characters within their relationships are paired with the auxiliary action of theatrical performance.

“Faithless” has been canonized for its continuation of Bergman’s style through his hand in the script, appearing in the semi-autobiographical depictions of adultery (Marianne’s lover David is a filmmaker, and Marianne was also the name of Ullmann’s character in Bergman’s miniseries “Scenes from a Marriage”) and the late reveal that the old man’s name himself is Bergman. Though these flourishes are noticeable, the film remains firmly in Ullmann’s own unique style as she deftly directs the actors in a portrayal of marriage and heartbreak that is crushing.

The film’s ending is somewhat anticlimactic in relation to the stark drama of Marianne’s tale, which dissolves like the salt spray on the shores of the desolate island Bergman lives on with the final reveal. “Faithless,” however is a masterful meditation on the stories we tell others and ourselves and the ways in which people can devastate each other to the point of no return.

— Camryn Bell

“The Passion of Anna” (1970)

“The Passion of Anna” is Ingmar Bergman’s second color film and a spiritual successor to his 1968 film “Shame,” which also stars Bergman’s frequent collaborators Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann. “The Passion of Anna” follows the hermetic Andreas Winkelman (von Sydow) as he enters the lives of couple Eva Vergerus (Bibi Andersson) and Elis Vergerus (Erland Josephson), and their friend, titular character Anna (Ullmann).

Winkelman, reeling from a divorce, has affairs with both of the lead women. His affair with Anna transitions from a comfortable companionship to a union fraught with mistrust and loathing. Shot on Fårö, a remote island in the Baltic Sea, the film has a feeling of isolation as the harsh landscape reflects the difficult relationships the characters cultivate with each other. The shots are dark and moody, often dependent on the naturalistic lighting dictated by the elements, with the sun only making brief appearances as a tonic to the monotonous winter sky. The film maintains a sense of sinister claustrophobia throughout with a subplot of an unknown culprit killing animals across the island, playing into the ultimate fatal question of whom to trust, if anyone.

The main narrative is punctuated by brief interviews with the film’s actors out of character, who describe how they are approaching their respective characters in seemingly real time. This dynamic is jarring, snapping the viewer out of the main fictional plotline at odd moments and highlighting a surreal delineation between what is real and fiction. Often told nonlinearly, the relationships between the characters don’t play out in real time, but rather in heightened bouts of climactic emotion. “The Passion of Anna,” with its sparse landscape and limited cast, feels almost parabolic at times, and as a whole, is a very strange and very engrossing film. It tangles with the perennial topics of love, loss and identity, all within the confines of this remote island — making the relationships playing out on screen feel like they are the only things in the world.

— Camryn Bell

“Fanny and Alexander” (1982)

For a master of existential angst, director, writer and producer Bergman infuses “Fanny and Alexander” with a surprising amount of joy and heart. The film exudes a touch less cynicism than most of Bergman’s films. It is clear that he approached this film as if it were his last, and if it truly had been the finale to the Bergman filmography, it would have been a just one. With countless coinciding themes, pitch-perfect characters and extensively admirable artistic direction, “Fanny and Alexander” is a remarkably ambitious picture that audiences cannot help but be swept up into.

This epic immerses its audience into the story of a large family in early 20th century Sweden. When the film opens, it is Christmas Eve, and the scene is lush, celebratory and boisterous. Told through the eyes of the children in the titular roles, joyful family life quickly deteriorates once the siblings’ father dies and their mother consequently marries a bishop. All signs of a happy life are obscured in their new house, as the duo’s stepfather forces them to leave all their belongings behind to start anew. As the siblings navigate their new life and coming of age, they face the abuses of their stepfather, from whom there seems to be no escape.

“Fanny and Alexander” provides a poignant portrait of childhood and memory, and of course, the Bergman name guarantees a product of unabashed unconformity. The film flows in a dreamlike way, almost as if in a fairytale. Memory sometimes creates magic, and things do not always fit together like matching puzzle pieces. Bergman raises many interesting questions and invites viewers into the film’s reality, which becomes somewhat of a mystical, inexplicable experience. It is no wonder that this is one of Bergman’s most critically acclaimed films, a true mark of achievement in his long career.

Julia Mears

BAMPFA will be screening “Bergman 100: Full Circle” until Dec. 30.

Contact The Daily Californian’s arts & entertainment staff at [email protected].

Correction(s):
The illustration credit accompanying a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Emily Bi was the illustrator. In fact, Olivia Staser was the illustrator.