It seemed to be a happy coincidence that a centenary tribute to Ingmar Bergman included a selection of his greatest works and allowed cineastes to place them beside a variety of contemporary films.
Two societies dedicated to the cause for which the film society movement was spearheaded by Satyajit Ray nearly seven decades ago were responsible for an experience that should be remembered for a long time.
It was almost half a century ago that Bergman became a talking point in film society circles. Film studies had not been introduced in universities till then. So when The Seventh Seal and The Silence were shown on the non-commercial circuit, it literally took film society circles by storm.
Interestingly, Bergman had come to Kolkata and other cities through the film societies at a time when Kurosawa had also become a debating point, especially with Roshomon, which was also widely discussed. It was not long before discerning viewers began to see Bergman, Kurosawa and Ray as part of a classical spirit that distinguished that period of world cinema.
The stunning image of a medieval knight playing a game of chess with the personification of Death who had come to take his life in The Seventh Seal was as unforgettable as the long and lingering shots of hooded figures on the landscape.
Not many in India may have grasped the dark fantasy that Bergman had woven into the mysterious narrative. But the visuals executed with extraordinary power and precision by Sven Nykvist continued to haunt viewers and filmmakers alike.
Bergman’s cameraman became an inseparable partner and an integral part of his artistic consciousness. Even now one often finds cameramen in India trying to execute their own versions of the classic that is often regarded as one of the greatest films of all time.
The centenary tribute offered by the Forum for Film Studies and Allied Arts at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute concentrated on the classics that had contributed to the best years of the film society movement in the late sixties and seventies.
The Silence shocked the sensibilities of an audience that had been permitted to watch films brought in by film societies without the rituals of censorship.
The explicitness with which the tensions between the two sisters were depicted was something that had not been seen before. What eventually survived were the stunning close-ups that had revealed an extraordinary level of cinematic power in a climate of lurking fear.
This was much the tone of other films — one of them being Persona, which was included in this package. Again the film became a matter of intense debate with its enigmatic style that was used to explore the dark recesses of the mind.
What mattered to audiences that saw the film along with Cries and Whispers all over again was that Bergman’s films are like text books. The more they are seen, the more they serve to enrich the cinematic experience and, in all probability, reveal fresh cinematic insights that are relevant to this day.
From the Life of the Marionettes was in a different category because it was made in Germany where Bergman was living in a self-inflicted “exile” on account of tax problems in his own country. It had the depressing tone of his earlier work but seen after all these years, one could see why it could not be put in the same class.
It was a happy ending when he managed to return to his roots in Fanny and Alexander, a period drama with an engaging human appeal that was strikingly different from the dark shades of his early work. It couldn’t be part of the centenary package partly on account of its length and treatment that prepared the ground for his movement towards television and theatre.
That did not dilute the lasting interest in his films that included unforgettable journeys into the magic worlds of The Virgin Spring, Winter Light, Wild Strawberries and Through a Glass Darkly. These classics had defined the master of images that have entered the contemporary idiom with cosmetic variations — much like the attempts to “reinterpret” Ray.
Placed beside the Bergman classics were glimpses of contemporary films from Sweden presented by Cine Central at Nandan. The market for films has changed in Sweden with a mixed package of bold investigations and harmless entertainment.
While there has been a remarkable growth with support from the government, the impact of Hollywood is unavoidable. Within the limitations, there is an effort to encourage women filmmakers as well. This has resulted in films like A Holy Mess and Reflections, which were included in the package of new Swedish films.
The first revolves around the mood of Christmas when there is a family reunion with two brothers and a common girlfriend. The other is a poetic exploration of the relationship between a mother and a daughter. Both are rooted in a specific cultural identity and are part of the efforts to promote local initiatives.
More daring was the 2016 investigation of a community uprooted by terror in The Girl Who Saved My Life. The documentary style reflected the director’s human concerns and confirmed that Sweden still has filmmakers who are prepared to dedicate their artistic skills to a social cause.