IRVINE — Even as late as the mid-'60s, Ingmar Bergman was describing "Summer With Monika" as one of his favorite films.
Bergman described the 1954 movie as a personal statement of his own creative and sexual longings. The heroine, a lusty, loving, troubled and iconoclastic girl, reflected his own youth--her passions, he explained, were much the same as those he brought to filmmaking.
Despite Bergman's giving "Summer With Monika" so much weight, the picture has since been ranked as a minor work in the famed Swedish director's library, which includes later staples of art cinema as "The Seventh Seal" (1956), "Wild Strawberries" (1957) and "Persona" (1966).
"Summer With Monika" (screening tonight as part of UC Irvine's "Love and Madness" series) is slight, there's no avoiding that. Bergman's expressiveness, which took on such a literary, often melancholy profundity as he matured, is glancing, sometimes unfocused.
But the story of Monika (Harriet Andersson) and her escapist affair with a sheltered young man (Lars Ekborg) does carry a flush of post-adolescent abandon that must have been liberating for the director.
The plot hinges on Monika, who works at a vegetable wholesale house and has sexual encounters with men there. She's seeking passion and identity through these liaisons, but they're always disappointing.
Then she meets Harry, and they connect through loneliness. Harry and Monika seek their own Eden by running off to an isolated skerry where they frolic all day. A snake shows up, though, in the shape of a former lover (John Harryson), and the real world rises up abruptly.
The picture is shot in a delicate but straightforward style with few randy indulgences, but that didn't stop American censors from going a little haywire when it came here. In the book "Bergman on Bergman: Interviews With Ingmar Bergman," the filmmaker described some of the scenes that were cut:
"There's a sequence where Harry sits and gets drunk in the evening after a fight. The censor cut that. There are two fights between the boys, first where they tumble all over the place, and then another bigger one. In this love scene (between Monika and Harry) their passions reach a climax; they get drunk and have a wildly orgiastic love scene. The censor took it all out . . . we just had to accept it."
The censors' attention generated several news stories, which led to an undeserved onus of controversy that dogged the film.
Consequently, "Summer With Monika" never made it into regular-run theaters, as Bergman had hoped, but was snatched up by adult-theater owners who thought they had a blue movie on their hands. They had to be disappointed, and the film slipped into relative obscurity.
* "Summer With Monika" screens tonight at 7 and 9 in the Social Science Hall on the UC Irvine campus at Campus Drive and Bridge Road, Irvine. $2 to $4. (714) 856-6379.