FILM REVIEW – SEARCHING FOR INGMAR BERGMAN. With Margarethe Von Trotta, Liv Ullmann, Daniel Bergman, Ruben Östlund, Mia Hansen-Løve. Directed by Margarethe Von Trotta. Unrated. 99 minutes.
2018 marks the hundredth anniversary of Ingmar Bergman’s birth, so throughout the year we’ve seen retrospectives at repertory theatres, a sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival and a massive Criterion Collection box set all attempting to put into perspective the towering legacy of this cinema giant. But with 45 feature films over seven decades leaving a seismic impact on movie history, it’s probably impossible to provide a definitive take on the Swedish master, certainly not in under two hours.
Which is why director Maragrethe Von Trotta was wise to go the anecdotal route with SEARCHING FOR INGMAR BERGMAN, a loose collection of friendly conversations with fellow artists and former collaborators about the legendary filmmaker’s life and influence. It’s by no means comprehensive, nor is it really trying to be. This beguilingly personal project is made up mostly of informal chats – a counterintuitively shaggy portrait of an artist renowned for his rigid austerity.
We first see Von Trotta standing on the beach where Bergman shot the opening sequence of “The Seventh Seal” some sixty-odd years ago. She astutely analyzes the scene’s components while quite movingly explaining the effect this scene had upon her as a young artist, and the the doors that were blown open in so many hungry young minds by the sight of Max Von Sydow challenging Death to a game of chess.
Bergman became a fan of Von Trotta’s as well; in 1994 he listed her “Marianne & Juliane” as one of his eleven all-time favorite films, alongside works by Chaplin, Kurosawa and Fellini. “Searching For Ingmar Bergman” sometimes feels a bit like a director trying to return the compliment, but there are certainly worse ways to spend an afternoon than watching a bunch of brilliant artists talk about their favorite Bergman pictures.
Of course his old muse Liv Ullmann is on board, elegant and eloquent as always in discussing their intense collaboration over so many remarkable films. There’s some typically erudite commentary from director Olivier Assayas, who started out as a film critic and boasts one of the sharpest analytical minds in the movie business.
Contemporary up-and-comers Mia Hansen-Løve and Ruben Östlund offer their own angles, with the latter illuminating an academic schism over Bergman’s legacy in Sweden’s film culture unheard of on these shores. International cinema warhorses Carlos Saura and Jean-Claude Carriére join the chorus of approbation, but the conversations stay on the brainy side without ever tipping over into gushing.
(A perhaps unsurprising omission is that of Woody Allen. I know he doesn’t usually do this kind of thing but Allen’s constant references to and re-makes of Bergman pictures provided my introduction to the artist as a pre-teen cinephile. I feel like he provided an entry point for a lot of us who saw “Interiors” and “Another Woman” before we sought out the Swedish movies Woody was ripping off all the time. Also in that spirit, “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” was a pretty good primer for “The Seventh Seal.”)
Things get a bit stickier when it’s time for Von Trotta to talk to family members, with Daniel Bergman in particular offering an affectingly dry-eyed summation of his father’s shortcomings as a parent. It’s always fascinated me how certain artists can be so perceptive and insightful about relationships in their work while making such a mess of things in their personal lives.
But far the most amazing memory recounted in “Searching For Ingmar Bergman” is his grandson’s recollection of watching Michael Bay’s craptastic “Pearl Harbor” in Bergman’s private screening room, the legendary filmmaker impatiently instructing his projectionist to fast-forward over the dialogue scenes. That’s a mental image to rival anything in “The Seventh Seal.”•••
Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.