Antonioni and Bergman: The Giants Remembered

By James Norton

persona-ingmar-bergman.jpgPersona, 1966

Ingmar Bergman gave the best line he ever wrote to his son Daniel, who directed the film Sunday's Children from his father’s script in 1992. A boy is confronted by a ghost in a forest and asks him, “when will I die?” and the ghost, like an echo, answers, “always!”

The crudest way to come to terms with a bereavement is to concentrate on the worst things a person has done. Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, who had cinephiles gasping “what the…?!” with their simultaneous deaths on 30th July this year, both made a few turkeys, but only a few, and both at times of crisis. Bergman’s The Serpent's Egg, made during his tax exile in Germany, was a lavishly mounted historical thriller set in pre-war Berlin, the kind of glossy euro-pudding any international auteur could have made; and From the Life of the Marionettes which was more cod Fassbinder than German Bergman.

Worse still, Antonioni’s final feature Beyond the Clouds, hampered by the stroke he suffered over two decades ago, was cod Antonioni, all airbrushed eroticism and portentous intellectual lifestyle fantasy. This was followed by his contribution to the 2003 portmanteau movie Eros, ‘The Dangerous Thread of Things’ whose soft porn scenes, culminating in a mortifying naked beach dance, were mitigated by limpid images of the Tuscan wetlands and undiminished reflections of the human figure both captive and freed by architecture and landscape.

Similarly, an artist’s worst work can be a forceful reminder of what they did best, not only by omission but also through frustrating eruptions of genius in mediocre material. The anguished performance of Liv Ullmann in The Serpent's Egg is indivisible from her best work, concentrating on what the character is feeling rather than what she says a display of emotional complexity that is underpinned not by the rickety scenario of this film but by the vivid architecture of Bergman’s entire output. Conversely, Antonioni, the poet of mist, still casts a spell in Beyond the Clouds and draws a helpless melancholy from the dank, implacable stone of his native Ferrara unmatched by the pompous vanity of his actors and the farrago of his script.

Aficionados of the unlikely may enjoy Antonioni’s video for pop star Gianna Nannini, made at the same time as his underrated 1984 feature Identification of a Woman and a characteristic artefact of the period, although not recognisably of a piece with the director’s canon. Bergman, on the other hand, made a series of commercials for soap in 1951, little riots of invention that match the classics of surrealist cinema with actors dressed as sweat drops and bacteria being pummelled by balloons amidst elaborate games with cinematic space, mirrors and the proscenium arch.

Antonioni’s last years will be better remembered for some beautiful short films, such as the lapidary travelogues Sicilia and the evocatively titled Noto, Mandorli, Vulcano, Stromboli, Carnevale. His true final film was the 15 minute Michelangelo Eye to Eye, in which the director haltingly enters the church of St. Peter in Chains in Rome and silently contemplates his namesake’s monumental sculpture (as Philip French noted of his and Bergman’s deaths, it was as if Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci had died on the same day.) The film is a testament to the power of wordless communion – Antonioni was rendered unable to speak by his stroke – and a work of immense sensuality as the camera cuts back and forth between details of the sculpture lit in elegant chiaroscuro and the frail form of the director as he examines it with rapt attention and then caresses the marble, before withdrawing from the holy space to the rising strains of Palestrina.

avventura-michelangelo-antonioni.jpgL'Avventura, 1960

Bergman’s Saraband was as accomplished as his greatest work, a swansong in perfect pitch, an elegiac tribute to some of his finest actors and his earlier glory, and a moving dissection of previous relationships and the love and tension between parents and children, uncompromising in its absence of sentimentality and mixture of reconciliation and reawakened anger. We are also deeply fortunate that, before his death, the witty and incisive maker gave as a kind of testament a number of lengthy analytical and confessional interviews to Marie Nyreröd about his cinema, his equally distinguished theatrical career and life on the remote Baltic island of Fårö that he had made his home (the Prospero of cinema) which were recently shown as part of the Arena strand by the BBC in Britain.

Bergman and Antonioni were both poets of isolation and masters of landscape. Bergman’s was an island domain; islands the settings of the severe and beautiful late sixties cinematic archipelago of Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, The Passion of Anna and The Fårö Document. Bergman discovered the site of his final home on Fårö while shooting his masterpiece Persona on the island. It is to this film that we owe perhaps his strangest and most profound insight. At the heart of the film is the most erotic scene in all cinema, and it consists entirely of a woman describing a sexual encounter in words, and this tells us that the true power of cinema is not the obvious one, not as a visual medium, but as an instrument of suggestion and a current for desire.

Antonioni’s most celebrated film L'Avventura, another masterwork of suggestion and proof that truth and meaning are always fugitive, was also set on an island, but his habitual landscape was the desert, the Sahara of The Passenger, the Mojave of Zabriskie Point, The Red Desert, deserted cities... Islands and deserts both encourage introspection; both distil thought and emotion to the need for survival. For both Bergman and Antonioni politics and society rumbled in the background, occasional deadly intruders. Both were supreme portraitists who extended the range of cinema like few other artists. They crafted new mirrors.

Bergman, like all of us, lost his chess game with death, but examined the rules and strategies of that game with unrivalled rigour and clarity. Antonioni’s virtuoso open endings were the finest in all cinema, and his own and Bergman’s leave a sense of careers that were fully achieved. The desert island of their combined oeuvre is a lost paradise for lovers of cinema.

The last word should be left to Caetano Veloso, whose ‘Michelangelo Antonioni’ haunts the interstices of Eros, was recorded in 2001, and is probably the finest pop song ever written about a major film director. Its lyrics read, in their entirety

Vision of silence
Empty corner
Page without words
A letter written upon a face
In stone and vapour
Useless window.

James Norton is a writer on cinema and researcher for television arts programmes.