Shades of gray

The three-day Ingmar Bergman retrospective, which closes the Detroit Film Theatre's fall season, pays tribute to the late Swedish filmmaker by showcasing one of his iconic movies with two lesser-known works that illuminate the depth and variety of his nearly 60-year career.

When the 89-year-old Bergman died on July 30 (the same day as another art house staple, Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni), he was justly lauded for his touchstone films, including Smiles of a Summer Night, Cries and Whispers, Persona, and Scenes from a Marriage.

It was also an opportunity to remember the influence Bergman had on world cinema. He came to epitomize the auteur theory (the director as a movie's author), and his modern, introspective tales became fodder for the burgeoning field of film theory and the calling cards for a generation of high-minded critics. Additionally, he managed to make traditional filmmaking techniques — heavy on the close-ups — always feel fresh and alive.

In his impressively long heyday (the 1950s to 1970s), Ingmar Bergman made American audiences familiar with the lilting cadences of the Swedish language, and challenged his audience's faith in the institutions of religion and family as the pillars of a righteous society. Although his name has become synonymous with gloom and doom, his prodigious output does include forays into the Scandinavian sunshine.

Even his best known film, The Seventh Seal (1957, 96 minutes), has moments when the medieval knight Antonious Block (played by Bergman's favorite leading man, Max von Sydow), who's returned to a plague-ridden Sweden after a decade fighting in the Holy Land, finds transcendence in a simple meal of wild strawberries and fresh milk shared with a cheerful family of traveling performers.

But that's not the first of this film's images that springs to mind. The gaunt Crusader playing chess with black-robed Death is one of the most recognizable (and spoof-able) visuals in film. As Block becomes increasingly willing to sacrifice his life for tangible knowledge of God, his commonsense squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) guides the fallen idealist and hangers-on through a world molded by superstition, and fueled by fear.

Naturalistic and stylized, timeless and timely, with luminous black-and-white cinematography, The Seventh Seal is a landmark film that remains both pertinent and hypnotic.

The Magician (1958, 101 minutes) isn't nearly as well known, but is considered by Bergman aficionados to be an overlooked gem from his metaphysical period (roughly 1956-64). Shot in expressionistic shades of gray by frequent Bergman collaborator, cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, The Magician can be seen as a clever expression of Bergman's obsessions — theatricality influencing everyday life, the question of what's real and what's fake — using the popular genres of the 19th century. As the seemingly mute mesmerist Dr. Albert Emanuel Volger, Von Sydow leads a motley crew of performers whose sideline is spiritualism.

Blatantly humiliated by Dr. Vergerus (Björnstrand), the pompous minister of health in a Swedish municipality, the troupe seeks revenge by playing on the weaknesses of the powerful. At once a psychological thriller, Gothic horror tale and broad bedroom farce, The Magician also contains elements of the searing, painful male-female recriminations that feature strongly in Bergman's later films.

The Swedish title of The Magician is actually Ansiktet, which translates as "face." Few filmmakers have read more in the human face than Bergman, and he opens his colorful adaptation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's fairytale opera, The Magic Flute (1975, 135 minutes), with nearly 10 minutes of the rapt faces of audience members (particularly his daughter with Liv Ullmann, Linn) at the Drottningholm Palace Theater in Stockholm.

An accomplished theater and opera director, Bergman makes a movie that embraces the wonders of the stage while breaking all the rules of filmed performance. One minute, he'll show the actors backstage during intermission, then Bergman will casually break down his own walls and show scenes that couldn't possibly happen onstage, then cut back to Linn's enchanted face.

Originally made for television (a medium he frequented, especially in his later years), this big-budget production uses a Swedish libretto and features whimsical sets and life-size puppets that recall Maurice Sendak. While interpreting the work of another great artist, Ingmar Bergman again shows his mastery by making us see it as if for the first time, through his eyes.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit). The Seventh Seal at 7 & 9:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 7. The Magician at 7 & 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 8. The Magic Flute at 4 & 7 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 9. Call 313-833-3237.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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