Remembering Bergman, Antonioni

Il mondo del cinema e' in lutto per la scomparsa di due fra i piu' grandi maestri del cinema: Ingmar Bergman e Michelangelo Antonioni. Con questo articolo vorrei rendere omaggio a questi due "immortali" registi. Che possano riposare in pace.


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Originally posted: July 31, 2007

Remembering Bergman, Antonioni


Early this week, in the same pitiless 24-hour cycle, the world lost two exacting masters of cinema, the Swedish writer-director Ingmar Bergman (dead at 89) and the 94-year-old Italian modernist Michelangelo Antonioni. While Federico Fellini put an antic, slightly desperate face on the European avant-garde cinema, directors no less disparate in their concerns and aesthetics as Bergman and Antonioni gave audiences something else entirely. Bergman's world was illuminated by winter light; Antonioni's was defined by the adventure of not knowing what lies beyond, or in the equally mysterious emotional expanse between two human beings.

Seeing any filmmaker's work in isolation opens the window only so far. But if you revisit Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," with its endlessly parodied images of Death and his scythe and the chess match, your conception of Bergman is immediately challenged by seeing it alongside Bergman's earlier "Smiles of a Summer Night," the mellow, full-bodied comedy that inspired the musical "A Little Night Music" and roughly one-fifth of Woody Allen's career.

Or this: Watch Bergman's "Shame," which may be his least-heralded great work, and then an hour or two or a day or two later, immerse yourself in the warm bath that is "The Magic Flute" or "Fanny and Alexander" (preferably the long television version). They are richly contrasting experiences.

"No art passes our conscience in the way film does," Bergman once said, "and goes directly to our feelings, deep down in to the dark rooms of our souls." That's the image of Bergman we know from the mockery he inspired, beginning with the 1968 short film "De Duve" (featuring a young Madeline Kahn). The homages were more of a drag: Woody Allen tried to ape the Bergman severity (in "Interiors," for example) when he wasn't going for a "Smiles of a Summer Night" provincial estate romp ("A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy," which owed a lot to Renoir's "Rules of the Game" as well, or rather, not as well).
Tellingly, Bergman's "Shame" never comes up for parody. It's pretty stunning, and it speaks directly to Bergman's power as an actor's director. Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow play a married couple whose lives are altered forever by a civil war in the very near future. What happens in "Shame" is what happens when an artist strips away all affectation and pretense.

The pretense is certainly thicker with Antonioni. Ever since "L'Avventura" (above, featuring Monica Vitti) divided audiences at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, Antonioni has served as an emblem of bourgeois malaise, or the sleek Italian equivalent thereof. The Cannes jury awarded "L'Avventura" a citation for creating "a new movie language," and for "the beauty of its images." They were dead right: Never before had moral rot been visualized so slyly, in a narrative that left its central question (what happened to the woman on the island?) unanswered. The director's rigorous, architectural use of space worked insinuating wonders, whether the scenery was rugged island coastline, where one of Antonioni's pleasure-cruisers disappears and is never found, or 1960-era urban landscapes of a more sterile sort.

Yet there is more than one Antonioni, as the Gene Siskel Film Center's recently concluded summer retrospective proved. Take, for example, "Il Grido" ("The Cry"), made three years before "L'Avventura." It belongs to the neo-realist tradition of the 1940s and early '50s, in form and content. It does not, however, belong to the past. Antonioni keeps nudging his wastrel protagonist toward unsettling, open-ended experiences more in line with the work to come.

The director didn't encourage grand metaphoric readings of that work and claimed he wasn't after "anything like an analysis of modern society … these are only feelings I have, and I am the least speculative man on Earth." Test that self-assessment against your own experience with Antonioni. It is a good time to do so. It is a good time to remember Bergman the same way. The two men had little in common except a fanatical curiosity about life, and loss. And the revealing beauty of just the right face.



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