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The Bergman Touch, From Father to Son : Movies: 'Sunday's Children' explores a boy's relationship with his father, a relationship deeply rooted in reality: Ingmar wrote it, son Daniel directed.

August 25, 1994|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Their relationship essentially began with that briefest of pleasures, the Swedish summer.

Summers were the time Ingmar Bergman and his son Daniel would renew their relationship, which had ruptured when Daniel was 3 and his distinguished director father had moved on to other familial pastures.

From the age of 8 on, Daniel summered with his father. So it was fitting that it should have been summer when, nearly 20 years later, they decided to make their first film together.

That film, "Sunday's Children," directed by Daniel and written by Ingmar about his painful relationship with his own father, is also about a summer day. The centerpiece of the film, which opens in Los Angeles Friday, is a bicycle trip young Ingmar took with his father in 1926, but the film also examines his parents' volatile marriage and the mythologies of youth.

"It was five years ago one summer that both my father and I were working on different projects," the younger Bergman said by phone from his island home in Stockholm. "We were working in different parts of (Ingmar's) house on Faro, and we had lunch together every day. We talked a lot about different projects, and we were both a little bored with what we were doing.

"And he had the idea that there might be a film in the (1987 autobiography) he wrote, 'The Magic Lantern.' I suggested that the bicycle story might be a film, and he asked if I would be interested in directing if he made a script. I think within one hour, we decided to do it. The summer after, he wrote the script. The summer after that, I directed it."

The critically acclaimed film, which has been circling the globe and playing the festival circuit for two years, explores the origins of Ingmar's difficult relationship with his remote, sometimes raging pastor father. But "Sunday's Children" also views those complexities with compassion. The father's love stitches the film together as it shuttles between Ingmar's childhood and middle age.

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Indeed, Ingmar blessed his son with a masterful screenplay to brace Daniel's first full-length feature, made with a modest budget of $3 million. (Ingmar, 75, retired from directing 10 years ago.)

"It's a loving gesture," said Daniel, 31. "He writes about his father and he gives it to his son to direct, and I give it back to him as a final film."

Daniel accepted the baton with conditions: Ingmar was not to step foot on the set, and when they did talk during filming, it was over the phone.

"You can't have two directors on the same set," he said. "It's really dangerous, especially when we're so emotionally involved in the story. It would confuse the actors. It would confuse me. It would confuse everything."

Still, "Sunday's Children" has all the richness and delicacy you would expect of the elder Bergman's films. Critics consider it the continuation of a trilogy that includes "Fanny and Alexander" (1982) and "The Best Intentions" (1992)--both films written by Bergman that also dissected his family's intricate relationships. "Sunday's Children" has won prizes at film festivals in Montreal, Puerto Rico and Giffoni, Italy.

Daniel says he realizes that comparisons with his father's work are inevitable but he's nonetheless leery of them. Although he ultimately decided to collaborate with Ingmar, he avoided both directing and the consequent comparisons for his first 10 years in the business, working instead as a grip and film technician. Now he says he has come to terms with his artistic inheritance.

"I don't think I can avoid being Ingmar's son, and that's not something to avoid. Why should I avoid it? This is a story I wanted to do, and it's something I know about. It's about my own family. It's about my own flesh and blood. It's about things I have experienced. It was written by one of the world's best scriptwriters, who is my father, and that shouldn't make me avoid doing it."

Daniel, the first of Bergman's nine children to make a film, is reluctant to discuss the dynamics of his relationship with his father. But he does say making "Sunday's Children" enhanced their bond.

"We became closer to each other," he said. "I understood a lot about him, and he, maybe seeing how I interpreted his script, understood how I feel about those things and how I am as a person."

Such insights were not always so accessible. Daniel's mother was the esteemed Estonian concert pianist Kabi Laretei, whose career demanded constant travel, prodding her son into precocious independence. By the time Daniel was 3 and his parents had divorced, Bergman was involved with actress Liv Ullmann.

Even before Ingmar's return into his life, 5-year-old Daniel became a captive of the local cinema. In a real-life scenario reminiscent of "Cinema Paradiso," he bonded with and learned from the older man who ran it. Daniel began working as a projectionist in a Stockholm cinema at 12, and in 1987, he made a television documentary about his mentor, "Nypan."

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