Those of us who imagine our lives as glamourous Hollywood movies with ourselves in the starring roles might have felt a tiny twinge of relief last week on hearing of the deaths of two famous European film directors. Sweden's Ingmar Bergman and Italy's Michelangelo Antonioni died on the same day—a noteworthy coincidence since, as Dan Zak pointed out in the Washington Post, they were bound together by "bleakness, pain and isolation. Antonioni and Bergman were men of distance. They photographed the chasms between us." Or, to put it another way, few of us would want to live in one of their movies. That might mean confronting despair and emptiness—or, worse still perhaps, abandoning the pleasant forgetfulness of our own everyday movies and striving for the self-knowledge they offer instead.
Take, for example, Bergman's 1973 television series, Scenes from a Marriage, about a typical, middle-class couple. "It deals with people who are emotional illiterates," Bergman explained. "They have no self-understanding. They know nothing about themselves." The husband, Johan (played by Erland Josephson) believes that "if you don't speak of something, it doesn't exist," while the increasingly desperate wife, Marianne (Liv Ullmann) knows intuitively that something is wrong, but has a hell of a time trying to figure out what. Both are well-schooled members of Sweden's professional class. They've read all the right books. "But they can't handle the simplest of emotional ABCs."
Similarly, the lovers, Claudia and Sandro, in Antonioni's 1960 film L'Avventura (played by Monica Vitti and Gabriele Ferzetti) are frequently confused, lonely and unable to communicate. Sandro tries to overcome his feelings of failure and alienation with compulsive womanizing, while Claudia struggles uncertainly for a self-understanding that only begins to glimmer in the film's final scene. L'Avventura was booed and jeered by audience members during its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, but the judges awarded it the Special Jury Award, "For a new movie language and the beauty of its images." According to film scholar Gene Youngblood, Antonioni used his starkly beautiful images to communicate the psychological effects of an affluent post-war world in which, among the leisure classes at least, the old rules and morals had suddenly been swept away. It was, says Youngblood, "an emerging culture in which the self becomes the most important thing." Antonioni explored these themes further in the two films that followed, La notte (1961) and L'eclisse (1962).
"When I make a picture," Bergman once said, "I just want to get in touch with other human beings and tell them a story." But many of his stories are unusually dark and disturbing, like the medieval knight's desperate chess game with Death in The Seventh Seal (1957) or the two anguished women in Cries and Whispers (1973) who watch over their sister as she slowly dies from an agonizing illness. Film critic David Thomson writes that Bergman's films "arose naturally from his convictions of the harrowing separateness of people, the intractable privacy of men and women even in love, that everyone was not a solid identity but an actor trying to play the self."
Bergman and Antonioni offer us glimpses of the many social selves we might choose to play. They include the acquisitive, narcissistic ones bent on the pleasures of comfort and self-deception—the emotionally-illiterate selves that our secular society encourages us to play. These are the selves of many personal movies in a culture driven by advertising and consumption. But, there are other possible selves including those that uncertainly give and seek love or that struggle for insight and understanding in an otherwise bleak and empty world. Bergman and Antonioni show there's no escaping these choices and no way of living comfortably with them, either. Obviously, their films won't appeal to people in the mood for entertainment and distraction. But in the end, Antonioni and Bergman were among the first to prove that movies can be an art form equal to any other.
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