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Cruel Beauty

When Ingmar Bergman died July 30, the adoring appreciations that swiftly followed habitually contained severe descriptions of his work as “bleak” and “despairing,” which, while hardly inaccurate, created an impression that watching his movies amounts to a succession of miserable experiences. But even at their most despondent, his films were something even his disciples rarely acknowledged: enormously comforting. As opposed to so much indie fare, which pretends to expose the fault lines in dysfunctional human relationships but rather piles on innocuous quirks so that we ultimately see how gosh-darn lovable we all really are, Bergman took the opposite tact. Particularly in his family dramas, he validated our darkest suspicions about those closest to us: They are a killing cancer we can never remove. Cries and Whispers (1972) and Autumn Sonata (1978) are suffused with horrible illness and withering contempt. In Cries, two hopelessly self-absorbed women (played by Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Thulin) hover dutifully by the death bed of their violently suffering sister (Harriet Andersson), not to make amends but to boil in the cauldron of their shared familial wretchedness. By comparison, Sonata is only mildly less harrowing as a distant mother (a shockingly middle-aged Ingrid Bergman) visits her mousy, resentful daughter (Ullmann again) to perform a slow-motion autopsy on their strained bond. While they were hardly a gleeful good time, the lingering impression left by both films is not sorrow or agony but, perversely, a cleansing exultation, an honest recognition that life sometimes is as difficult as we imagine. In the face of so much popular entertainment that is constructed to reassure us — you and your wife will work things out, the endless search for meaning ultimately is rewarding — Bergman’s greatest films treated us like grown-ups and spoke to the twitchy uncertainties we’re told to ignore. Yes, we’ll end up taking all that unresolved pain to the grave. And, sure, even Ingrid Bergman grows old. But that doesn’t make her any less beautiful. (New Beverly Cinema; Fri.-Sat., Oct. 5-6)

—Tim Grierson


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