You can tell a good movie straight away when you see it, because you can't see it too well. Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries" has proved so popular with audiences that the Harvard Film Archive's print jumps on the first subtitle from all its wear and tear.
If spiteful critics don't consign a film to the dustbin, sooner or later enthusiastic viewers will. But the gradual degeneration of the print should only serve as further encouragement to rush to the HFA while the going is still relatively good.
Moviegoers will want a head start; "Wild Strawberries" is one of those movies which seems pregnant with a cosmic wisdom that eluded you this time, but if you just concentrate a little harder... So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the movie theater. Of course, Bergman can't explain the human condition any more successfully than Ace Ventura, but he makes you think he can. He pieces together life's regrets, failures, foibles and aspirations with such a knowing hand that you can't help expecting a revelation any frame now.
Each new sequence reveals a fresh anxiety in the life of Isak X, the protagonist. During the course of a single day, when he drives across Sweden to receive an award for fifty years of service to the medical profession, he experiences a sort of mid-life crisis 40 years too late. Glimpses of his old haunts stir memories, the presence of his daughter-in-law and several hitchhikers conjure up old associations, and above all, his disturbing dreams indicate his fears and failings.
This life-flashing-before-your-eyes scenario perfectly complements Bergman's striking, stark camerawork. Silhouettes, chiseled features and barebones austerity leap from every image. Even the cluttered country houses accentuate by their very contrast the simple, arresting composition of every frame. Bergman boils down sets and actors to ideal types: the old seem remarkably wrinkly and thoughtful, the young unbelievably unblemished and ebullient.
The suggestion of a prototypical summerhouse by a few ramshackle piers and a wild strawberry patch would do Socrates proud. Such vivid, yet spartan footage gives the film its dreamlike quality. The very appearance of "Wild Strawberries" bestows a faintly abstract, contemplative air on the film. Thus, even the cinematography conveys a serene worldly wisdom.
Inevitably, from time to time Bergman strays from eerie unreality into sheer unbelievability. His hitchhikers haven't been aboard for two minutes before they've revealed their whole sexual history; while one couple crashes their car, jauntily introduces themselves and then settles down to hearty physical abuse in the back seat. Such individual twists--rather than the overall tone--come across as contrived.
"Wild Strawberries" wins its audience's sympathy by placing them and the protagonist in the same predicament. Characters and audience alike are all trying to make sense of Isak's life, to understand how such an outwardly successful old man could be so inwardly confused. The narration does not take the condescendingly didactic, omniscient tone of other looking-back-on-life flicks, creating a sort of "And a Fjord Runs Through It." Instead, it generates an air of expectation by hinting at grandiose themes without explicitly laying claim to them.
Herein lies Bergman's real genius. For by merely insinuating deep inner meanings, he tantalizes his audience. The proof is in the projector--each scratch in the print betrays a past crowd of mesmerized moviegoers.