Saturday, January 22, 2011


I discovered the films of Ingmar Bergman way back in college with a life- changing viewing of "THE SEVENTH SEAL" in an undergrad English class, but I can't say I've done the finest job of barreling through his pantheon in the intervening 24 years. That's not to say I haven't seen a bunch of them - in fact, just for S&G's, let's make a rank-ordered list of all the Bergman films I HAVE seen, some of which are among my favorite films ever, all of which preceded my viewing of "HOUR OF THE WOLF" the other night:
  1. Persona
  2. Scenes From a Marriage
  3. Cries and Whispers
  4. Autumn Sonata
  5. The Passion of Anna
  6. The Seventh Seal
  7. Wild Strawberries
  8. Saraband
Ouch. That's one every three years, for 24 years, from someone who has long purported to be a "huge Bergman fan". That's even weaker than I expected. With that in the back of my mind, I loaded up the Netflix streaming queue with many of the ones I hadn't seen, and decided to start upping the pace a little. "Hour of the Wolf" was the first in this project.

This black and white gothic psychodrama features several of the key ensemble players that Bergman used through most of the 60s and beyond: Liv Ullmann, Max Von Sydow, Ingrid Thulin and Erland Josephson. It sprang from a script that was eventually broken into two films, the masterful 1966 "Persona" and this slightly less masterful meditation on mental illness, marriage, aging and how "two people become one" after years of being together. And it is definitely creepy.

Von Sydow's character, a man wracked with guilt and shame and who is aging less than gracefully - basically, he's turning into a reclusive basket case who is too scared to go to sleep for fear of visions - is haunted by not only his past but these visitors to his waking hours (?) who torment him with his sins and temptations.

Ullmann, who plays his wife, is either an accessory to his madness or simply a helpless observer - with Bergman it's often hard to tell. That's why films like these, which leave the viewer with a profound sense of unease and paranoia, have been dissected in film schools and media forums for decades. Because Bergman was so masterful at close-ups - especially of Ullmann - and at juxtaposing jarring music with his imagery, his films take on this gauzy, mythic quality where the images linger long after you've forgotten the deeper meaning of what he was grasping for. Often with Ingmar, it was all about him anyway.

I'm not going to call this one of his masterpieces, but I'll also say that I pondered it for a week afterward. Even as I type this I'm trying to figure out the best ways to both warn the unwary and to excite those whose film palates are thirsting for experimental adventure. Put it this way - if you loved any of the films I mentioned in my all-too-brief list of the Bergman films I've seen, then you're going to have a soft spot for "Hour of the Wolf" which certainly qualifies as his most "traditionally" scary film. I'm going to move on to the purportedly shiny happy "Smiles of a Summer Night" next.