AT THE Charles Cinema is The Dove, a short, funny, successful American parody of Ingmar Bergman. It does what no genuine Bergman film has been able to do: bring us closer to Bergman. That's because it plays up all his most endearing traits (low-key lighting, throaty language, immense closeups, symbolism played to the hilt) without his most threatening: his faith.
Bergman has compared himself to the medieval craftsman building a cathedral. An apt analogy: today we appreciate a cathedral by standing outside while a guide describes the towers, gargoyles, and stained-glass. If we're short on faith, it's a little embarrassing to venture through the doors.
Even from outside, you can enjoy his characters; deify gaunt Max von Sydow, maintain a healthy lust for Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Anderson, and full-lipped Liv Ullman; be terrified by Hour of the Wolf and Persona, stilled by The Silence, and dragged naked through the fourteenth century in The Seventh Seal. But the distance remains -- the first six rows at the Brattle become an impassable Nordic wasteland. As Stanley Kauffmann said of The Silence, "The film is Bergman musing, and we have intruded."
Directors like Antonioni recognize the death of God, and say man has to take it from there; but Bergman is trying to discover how to live at least with His memory. In 1960 Bergman wrote:
To me, religious problems are continuously alive. I never cease to concern myself with them; it goes on every hour of the day. Yet this does not take place on the emotional level, but on an intellectual one.... The religious problem is an intellectual one to me; the relationship of my mind to my intuition.
Mind vs. intuition is the skeleton-key to his films.
It's ironic (if unsurprising) that Ingmar Bergman, amidst his low-key lighting and contrasty soundtracks, huge closeups and merciless symbolism, should fall prey to his own musing. Bergman's intellect and intuition never quite fuse: they live separately in Bergman the scriptwriter and Bergman the film director. Film is the most direct medium, but Bergman sees his ideas as literary:
... the writing of the script is a difficult period but a useful one, for it compels me to prove logically the validity of my ideas. In doing this, I am caught in a conflict--a conflict between my need to transmit a complicated situation through visual images, and my desire for absolute clarity.
So even though his movies are full of beautiful images, their ideas tend to ride on the soundtrack. Truffaut's Jules and Jim was adapted from a novel, yet its moments of revelation (the morning scenes at the beach-house, for instance) are visual. When Bergman tries to escape the literary--in The Silence, with almost no dialogue--the result is a crude, sometimes ludicrous reliance on symbols.
Bergman's latest film, Shame, has yet to be released here. But the last two we've seen, Persona and Hour of the Wolf, suggest he's at last finding an answer to both his problems. The films still deal with mind vs. intuition, but it's become a personal rather than a religious dilemma: the crisis in faith has become the crisis in personality. Today we think in terms of psychology, not belief, so the new Bergman is easier to take. Seventh Seal has the aura of a morality play: Hour of the Wolf a cerebral horror film. Who would you pay $1.50 to see, Norman Vincent Peale or Lon Chaney?
The less cosmic new approach not only brings us closer to Bergman, it brings him closer to his favorite script-writer. The visual effects in Hour of the Wolf made points the dialogue just suggested. Persona was perhaps Bergman's first work that had to be a film, not a novel set to beautiful pictures.
Presumably we'll begin to feel a few rows closer to Bergman with each film from now on. He's now appealing less to our intellect, more to our emotion. If this is true, it's especially worth going to the Charles and seeing The Dove. (Negatives, the feature with it, you can forget about--though then the short will be costing you about a dime a minute). The Dove is funny and pretentious. It will show you what's to be seen on the surface of "classic" Bergman: what probably won't be seen there much longer.