Here’s something you probably didn’t know. Ingmar Bergman screened Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor for his grandson at his theater on the island of Fårö but kept making the projectionist skip ahead to the action sequences. That’s one of the most charming revelations in Margarethe von Trotta’s cheery portrait Searching for Ingmar Bergman, a film with contents that belie its curious title. The filmmakers and everyone they interview know precisely where the great Swedish director is now (interred on Fårö) and was all through his life, following his career from Stockholm to his tax exile in Munich and at last to his quiet island off Sweden’s southeast coast. Von Trotta is not searching for Bergman; the director of Rosenstrasse, Rosa Luxemburg and Sheer Madness is tracking Bergman, toasting him and his work with his collaborators and some high-profile fans.
As the song claims about Kansas, Searching for Ingmar Bergman is a home where seldom is heard a discouraging word. Actress Rita Russek reports that Bergman “outfoxed” her, on the set, into going nude for his 1980 lulu From the Life of the Marionettes, but she’s amused rather than cross about it. She would much rather talk about the friendship she struck up with him later, when they were neighbors. Katinka Farago, long the master director’s “script girl,” notes that standing up to his tirades was just part of the job — he took his anger out on her rather than his performers. One outlier: Director Daniel Bergman, one of the great man’s sons, speaks frankly about Ingmar Bergman’s habit of siring children and then ignoring them, chalking such behavior up to a narcissistic need to see evidence that he was loved.
But von Trotta is not searching for the kind of dark truths that Bergman put onscreen for five decades. Instead, she has crafted a celebration, opening with the first scenes of 1957’s The Seventh Seal, narrating each striking choice Bergman made in that sequence, and contrasting the stark beach purgatory of his film with the actual shooting location today. That was von Trotta's introduction to Bergman's work, and she is persuasive in cheering it, just as directors Mia Hansen-Løve, Olivier Assayas and Carlos Saura are attesting to Bergman’s influence in chatty interviews.
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The film’s tone is reverent, its subject so grand that, at times, the encomiums occasionally are unburdened by detail. It’s most exciting in its particulars: when she spends more time on the sensual, paranoid, lesser-known Marionettes than she does on Wild Strawberries, or when we’re treated to rehearsal footage and on-set stories from Scenes From a Marriage. Little here will surprise cineastes but much of it will charm them.