As Stephen Holden wrote today, Ingmar Bergman, and now Michaelangelo Antonioni, belong to cinema’s past, of a time when going to the(ir) movies was a ritual akin to attending high Mass: attending was soul-cleansing. Their asceticism, while often overwrought (and cramped compared to their contemporary Luis Bunuel’s work), scrubbed off the excesses of American and British film, the former of which was going through one of its periodic fallow seasons. I liked a lot of Bergman, with special praise due to Shame, which was long out of print until Criterion did its usual exemplary re-issue in 2004: a spare, savage tone poem on war and marriage; a rare moment in which Bergman refrained from pinning down ambiguities, as was his wont. Too often, though, the rigor with which Bergman solved his psychosexual dilemmas produced inflexible, stitled films. Almost everyone likes Fanny & Alexander more than I do: the first third – an extended, plush sequence at a holiday party – tries too hard to suffuse the audience in the glow of love, proving that Bergman could overdo hearth fires as he could angst; besides, the film should really have been called Alexander and Alexander, as this director obsessed with the mystery of the feminine (a more accurate phrase than the worn, quite condescending moniker “woman’s director”) seems for once interested in his male protagonist. The Silence, Winter Light, and The Hour of the Wolf feel like Woody Allen source material waiting to be exploited (if Woody writes dialogue for films like Interiors that sounds like Swedish subtitles, so does Bergman).
The lacuna at the heart of Antonioni’s L’Avventura, deepened by characters whose sexual needs outstrip their intellectual resources, tantalizes and perplexes like Shame‘s, and screening the scratchy university library’s copy in 1994 remains one of my seminal experiences. But he was about as uneven as Bergman; the disjunction between form and subject produced sometimes laughable films (like most of La Notte, Red Desert and Zabriskie Point, some of Blow-Up). Antonioni stayed a one-hit wonder until (once again) Criterion released The Passenger last year, one of the seventies’ best films, as I wrote here. Eclipse, starring a feral Alain Delon, is almost as good.