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Crossed Portraits of Ingmar and Michelangelo

Translated Tuesday 2 October 2007, by Helen Robertshaw

On 30 July 2007, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, two leading figures of the seventh art in Europe, died within a few hours of each other and separated by a distance of several thousand kilometres. They “peacefully” left the world they had inhabited with such intensity and which they never ceased to investigate, with the probing and vigilant light of their camera, illuminating its darkest and most turbulent abysses: one died at eighty-nine years of age, at dawn, in his house on the Swedish island of Faarö in the Baltic sea, where he had retired; the other died at ninety-five years of age, in the evening, at his house in Rome, as if, despite the aphasia he had suffered since 1985, he had been determined to have the last word and to leave the world with this ‘delayed time’, which is never completely dead time and which he so enjoyed filming, with no-one, or practically no-one, to continue his cinematic legacy; because of his generation, the last generation to be associated with the origins of cinema, the only remaining figure is the inimitable Manoel de Oliveira, born in 1908, who began filming in the era of silent cinema… Should we sense in the disturbing, not to say fortunate, coincidence in the timing of the deaths of these two great figures of modern auteur cinema, fate’s helping hand which would, unlike our two film directors who were themselves little inclined towards narrative compromises, concede a certain simplicity of plot and an illusion of editing, in order to unite Ingmar and Michelangelo, as themselves finally, in parallel trajectories?

Perhaps. For if they explored cinema’s modernity in different ways – one as a man of the theatre, the other as a painter; one using the power of the word, the other with the silence of the gaze; one to the point of sin, the other to the point of alienation; one looking back at the past, the other turned towards the future -, there are certainly correspondences between the journeys of the two artists, as they both embody a certain moment, the so-called modern period, in the history of the seventh art when the auteurs, long before the new wave directors, dared to challenge conventional narrative codes in order to examine more closely the connection between man and the world and to better grapple with the existential angst of their time. Their careers, although very different in terms of the number of works completed, - a full filmography of around forty feature-length films for one, and a fragmented, incomplete filmography with gaps left by unfinished projects, amounting to only around fifteen feature-length films for the other -, span the same period nonetheless, six decades during which they profoundly changed our way of viewing films.

Ingmar, born in 1918 in Uppsala, where he received a strict education under the iron rule of a Lutheran father, discovered the cinema, after studying history and literature in Stockholm, via the theatre; Michelangelo, born in 1912, in Ferrara in the North of Italy, into a middle-class family, got into cinema, after studying economics in Bologna, via journalism and film criticism. One of the directors made his first work in 1945 with Crisis, a melodrama which outlined at that early stage some of the obsessions which were to recur throughout his later work (the disintegration of relationships, violence and the repression of desire). This was followed by ten or so youthful films which enabled him to free himself little by little from his primary influences (Sjöström, German expressionism and French poetic realism). During the 1950s, the director produced his first masterpieces (Summer Interlude, Waiting Women, Summer with Monika) before finally achieving international acclaim with films as different and as memorable as Smiles of a Summer Night, Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal and Face to Face. The other director made his first work between 1943 and 1947, People of the Po Valley, a documentary indebted to an emerging neorealism, a movement which the director swiftly distanced himself from, after a few short films, before internalising and subjectifying this legacy from 1950 onwards with Chronicle of a Love, his first feature-length film, then with The Lady Without Camelias, The Girlfriends and finally The Cry, so many films where, via an introspective narration and a particular attention to the details of the decor, the originality of Antonioni’s style asserted itself.

The beginning of the 1960s marked a turning point in the work of the two directors who, having each produced a trilogy – the so-called “silence of God” trilogy (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence) for one of the directors, and the one called a posteriori the trilogy of “incommunicability” (The Adventure, The Night and The Eclipse) for the other director -, ventured further in their stripping away of formal elements and narrative exhaustion, into as yet unexplored territory: in order to unearth the mystery of the human soul by examining the face in close detail for one, in order to comprehend the mystery of almost entirely empty feelings for the other director, mysteries which both directors associated with the feminine.

In 1964, both directors started making films in colour. Bergman was more timid in his approach, in the film All These Women: he returned to a black and white format with the film Persona – a sublime encounter between a nurse and a silent actress (in this masterpiece Liv Ullmann appeared for the first time in Bergman’s cinema) – before adopting this format definitively, starting with the film A passion (1969) and taking full advantage of its emotional and symbolic impact in his masterly films of the 1970s (Cries and Whispers, The Magic Flute, The Serpent’s Egg and Autumn Sonata). Antonioni was more experimental in his use of colour, with the magnificent Red Desert which closes the cycle of films with Monica Vitti: the director continued to use colour from then onwards, moving away from Italy and allowing his enigmatic gaze to wander elsewhere with films such as Blow Up in 1966 (a film which consolidated the directors’ great reputation, set in swinging London), followed by Zabriskie Point (set in the America of counter-culture), Chung Kuo (an admirable documentary about Mao’s China) and The Passenger (filmed in Africa and all over Europe from the north to the south).

The year 1982 signalled the time for slowing down a little for the Swedish and the Italian master alike. A peaceful return to the time of his childhood for one of the directors who, with Fanny and Alexander (1982), created a film which tied up any loose ends and cast an autobiographical light upon the main themes explored in his films, before saying an official farewell to the big screen. He did not, however, abandon the theatre or television where he ended his career with a final dark and dense work to be remembered by, a television play about old age, entitled Saraband (2003). An uncertain time of return towards the future and creation for the other director, who after Identification of a Woman (1982), following a cerebral concussion, was forced to put his work on hold, and his oeuvre was subsequently completed by only a few vibrant additions: Beyond the Clouds (in collaboration with Wenders) in 1995 and finally, in 2004, two short films, The Gaze of Michelangelo and The Dangerous Thread of Things (the first of the three Eros episodes).

“Film”, said André Bazin, “is the only art which develops and grows old with us”: if the death of great film directors affects us so deeply, this is because with them a little of our belief in the world fades away, as we are thrust towards a future which, without their presence, no longer seems very appealing.

José Moure


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