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Ingmar Bergman: 1918-2007

Cinema's brooding auteur of the psyche

His work opened the door for foreign film in the U.S.

July 31, 2007|Myrna Oliver | Special to The Times

Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish auteur whose visionary work in early masterpieces such as "The Seventh Seal" and "Wild Strawberries" and later films such as "Persona" and "Cries and Whispers" probed the depths of the human psyche with existential dramas that redefined cinema, died Monday. He was 89.

The reclusive Academy Award-winning director and writer died at his home on the Baltic island of Faro off the coast of Sweden. Astrid Soderbergh Widding, president of the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, confirmed his death on the foundation's website. Bergman had never fully recovered from hip surgery in October, Swedish news media reported.

Bergman was considered one of the greatest directors in motion picture history. His movies are credited with helping open America's doors to foreign films in the 1950s.

He won Oscars three times for best foreign-language film -- for "The Virgin Spring" (1960), "Through a Glass Darkly" (1961) and "Fanny and Alexander" (1983) -- and received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Irving J. Thalberg Award in 1970 for his body of work.

"Bergman was the epitome of a director's director -- creating beautiful, complex and smart films that imprinted permanently into the psyche -- inspiring filmmakers all over the world to create their own movies with similar passion and brio," Michael Apted, president of the Directors Guild of America, said in a statement.

Filmmaker Woody Allen, in a statement, called Bergman a friend. "He told me that he was afraid that he would die on a very, very sunny day, and I can only hope that it was overcast and he got the weather he wanted."

The reference acknowledged Bergman's reputation for gloomy and introspective films, which he had admitted to early in his career:

"I don't want to produce a work of art that the public can sit and suck aesthetically.... I want to give them a blow in the small of the back, to scorch their indifference, to startle them out of their complacency."

Critic Peter Rainer wrote for The Times in 2005 that "Bergman is undeniably one of the great directors, but he has always stood for more than the sum of his films. From the first, he was regarded ... as a visionary who grappled with the Big Questions of God and Man. His symbol-thick films were drenched in the night sweats of mortal torment. He was the kind of artist we had been brought up to believe was the real deal: He suffered for our souls."

Bergman's films plumbed personal relationships, social dilemmas and ethical issues, with their attendant emotions of joy, love, longing, fear, shame, desire, loneliness, pain and hate.

Often seen as a vanguard feminist, Bergman created female characters who were strong, patient and innately wise, while his male characters were usually selfish, self-indulgent or intolerant.

Cinematographer Sven Nykvist became his most familiar collaborator in a partnership that began in 1960. They shared a preference for location shooting and natural light, and Nykvist won an Academy Award for "Cries and Whispers" (1972), which told the story of a dying woman and the two sisters and servant who attend her.

The film had "the hypnotic style of a single dream," critic Pauline Kael wrote in her book "Reeling" (1976). "It is all one enveloping dream fantasy; the invisible protagonist, Ingmar Bergman, is the presence we feel throughout."

She also observed that in much of his work "the imagery derives its power from unconscious or not fully understood associations" that could cause Bergman to explain a scene by saying, "It's just my poetry," while leaving the viewer to wonder what he was trying to accomplish.

His strength as a filmmaker began to emerge with "Wild Strawberries" (1957), a movie many critics considered his best although it was made early in his career. He masterfully used flashbacks to tell the story of an elderly doctor who reviews his life's failures through dreams and a visit home.

"There is no more resonant leave-taking in movies than the final shot of Victor Sjostrom's aged physician in 'Wild Strawberries,' his head on the pillow after a long odyssey, as he turns into a revenant before our eyes," Rainer wrote in The Times.

"Wild Strawberries" significantly influenced the American film "Five Easy Pieces," the 1970 production by Bob Rafelson about a concert pianist, played by Jack Nicholson, who drops out to work in an oil field, Kael wrote.

Allen once described Bergman as "probably the greatest film artist

"I still recall my mouth dry and my heart pounding away from the first uncanny dream sequence to the last serene close-up. Who can forget such images? The clock with no hands. The horse-drawn hearse suddenly becoming stuck -- the blinding sunlight and the face of the old man as he is being pulled into the coffin by his own dead body," Allen wrote in the New York Times in 1988. "Clearly, here was a master with an inspired personal style; an artist of deep concern and intellect, whose films would prove equal to great European literature."

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