Ingmar Bergman directed over 50 features, but he was a significant figure in 20th-century culture in part because he was so obviously significant. Last week’s inch-above-the-fold front-page New York Times obituary cites Woody Allen’s pledge of allegiance: The Swedish director was nothing less than “the greatest film artist . . . since the invention of the motion picture camera.”
More than Fellini, Kurosawa, Resnais or Wajda, Bergman personified the art-house cinema of the 1950s and ’60s. He was a skillful filmmaker and an extraordinary director of actors, but mainly he was a sensibility whose quintessential image was Max von Sydow’s gaunt knight playing chess with the cowled figure of Death in The Seventh Seal (1957). Bergman’s high-middlebrow symbolism, evident metaphysical anguish and absence of challenging formal innovation made his movies safe for college English departments. Cinephiles were often less enthusiastic. Bergman’s work was memorably satirized in The Dove, the faux-Swedish short that opened the 1968 New York Film Festival; the same year, Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris joked that the obscure ending of 2001 qualified as “instant Ingmar.”
The son of a Lutheran minister, Bergman was born in rural Sweden and made his first movie in 1945. Still fresh and immediate, his early films — many of them lyrical invocations of the brief Nordic summer — were indifferently received at home but championed by the new French journal Cahiers du Cinema. Wider recognition began when Bergman won a prize at Cannes with his 16th film, Smiles of a Summer Night (1955); this was followed by The Seventh Seal, which won the Palme d’Or two years later and, along with the elegiac Wild Strawberries (1957), established his international reputation.
An allegory set during the period of the Black Death, The Seventh Seal was blatantly existentialist entertainment, a costume version of Camus’ The Plague; Bergman waxed even more philosophical in an early-’60s trilogy that addressed God’s indifference and his own spiritual crisis: Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963). Gorgeously shot and unflinchingly downbeat, the latter was Bergman’s most sexually explicit movie. A trimmed version opened in New York at a theater that specialized in cheap horror and “nudie-cutie” films and set a house record.
The Silence signaled the filmmaker’s wary involvement in the social and aesthetic currents of the 1960s; it led directly to his enigmatic masterpiece Persona (1966) and Shame (1968), an impressive meditation on the fate of civilians during wartime. In the early ’70s, Bergman returned to melodrama and had a second period of critical success with “relationship films” like Cries and Whispers (1972) and Scenes From a Marriage (1973). He announced the end of his movie career in 1981 with the sumptuous Fanny and Alexander (although he made several more television films), while remaining active in the theater. A series of productions — mainly Strindberg and Ibsen — imported by the Brooklyn Academy of Music demonstrated his brilliance as a stage director.
I never reviewed Bergman, although I did write a brief essay on his “secret film” This Can’t Happen Here (1950), an exemplary anti-Communist thriller that he would later disown; I enjoyed describing Samuel Fuller as Bergman’s American analogue, precipitated a brief flurry (in Helsinki) by calling Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki Bergman’s postmodern successor, and have several times taught The Silence in the context of post–World War II poetic horror and pop existentialism (including Fuller’s Shock Corridor).
The Silence is morbid and despairing, but such consummate filmmaking cannot be depressing. Bergman himself saw The Silence as almost hopeful, telling one reporter that it suggests “Life only has as much meaning and importance as one attributes to it oneself.” Meaning and importance are things Bergman’s films never lacked and his oeuvre has in abundance.
Michelangelo Antonioni was not just a great movie director but also a major European artist — one of the very few filmmakers ever recognized as such. A more polarizing figure than Ingmar Bergman, Antonioni has also remained more current.
Antonioni was the maestro of impeccable angst and elegant alienation, the poet of sterile architecture and bad breakups. His noncommunicative characters did not have personalities so much as drives; his most substantive movies feature, as the embodiment of spiritual anguish, the stunning ’60s girl Monica Vitti. It was Antonioni who put the mod, as well as the modishness, in modernism. Alienation has never been more gorgeously indulged than in L’Avventura — a mystery that casually abandons its ostensible premise midway through and the stormy triumph of the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, which bestowed its Palme d’Or on Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Seven years later, Antonioni achieved an even greater renown; thanks to his English-language art-house blockbuster Blowup, he was Beckett in bell-bottoms.
Can a serious director also be an unabashed fashionista? During the decade between L’Avventura (1960) and his gloriously foolish American debacle Zabriskie Point (1970), Antonioni’s name was the equivalent of a chic designer label or a certain soigné state of mind — what Andrew Sarris liked to call “Antoniennui.” Antonioni made industrial pollution ravishingly beautiful in Red Desert (1964) and did as much as anyone to elevate the fashion photographer to artist with Blowup. Il Grido (1957) was the first Antonioni film to use a specific location as the stylized stage set for a stripped-down existential drama. But it was the spectacular wide-screen L’Avventura, which — lavishing neo-realist attention on the rich and the bored — brought his style to maturity. L’Avventura was a landscape film that was also a landmark, changing forever the face of cinema. This use of film as a form of temporal sculpture would be among the most influential of ’60s movies (anticipating, in some respects, the more radical use of “real time” in Andy Warhol and structural film).
Less monumental in its purity and more subtle in its radicalism, Antonioni’s 1962 masterpiece L’Eclisse showcases Vitti as his moodiest, most evasive heroine, drifting out of one affair and into another with Alain Delon’s mercurial stockbroker, both of these beautiful creatures overshadowed by the blandly futuristic architecture of the film’s setting. As L’Eclisse anticipates Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 Alphaville in its use of a “found” Flash Gordon landscape, Antonioni’s first color film, Red Desert, is almost pure science fiction. Everything exudes a chemical glow. Nature has been supplanted.
The overrated Blowup and underrated Zabriskie Point form, with The Passenger (1975) — which stars Jack Nicholson as an international man of mystery — a loose trilogy, less enduring but more personal than the Vitti vehicles. In each of these laconic, ostentatiously with-it thrillers, an alienated male protagonist stumbles into some sort of social commitment, attempting the passage from witness to participant. All three were made in English at a time when Antonioni was the world’s most cosmopolitan filmmaker — an example of what German author Hans-Magnus Enzensberger unkindly termed a “tourist of the revolution.” Antonioni’s 1972 China documentary, Chung Kuo Cina, made the year before Enzensberger’s essay was published, might be considered a pendant on the “radical tourist” trilogy. Antonioni was a Now-ist.
“In this period they had what was called ‘the art film,’ ” Nicholson explains in the commentary that augments The Passenger’s DVD release, locating it in some irretrievable past. Fair enough. Antonioni’s trendiness was a factor of his desire to engage the history of his times. It’s suggestive that those contemporary directors who have made the most use of Antonioni’s example — Abbas Kiarostami, Tsai Ming-liang, the late Edward Yang — are from nations once considered “Third World.”