Remembering Antonioni and Bergman

July 30, 2008 at 5:11 am (Cinema)

 

Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman – two of the greatest auteurs the world of cinema has ever seen – left us exactly one year ago, on July 30, 2007. Antonioni and Bergman were 94 and 89 years old respectively when they passed away. 

 

Within a span of a few hours, both these legends departed from the world they spent their lifetime interpreting on celluloid.

 

Antonioni lent cinema the art of creating images imbued with such beauty and feelings that hitherto were the exclusive domain of impressionist painters. Bergman, on the other hand, showed us how the deepest of existential issues can be portrayed and cogitated on the silver screen.

 

Cineastes the world over are yet to recover from the shock of losing both these masters on the same day.

 

What follows is a humble tribute from a mourning admirer.

 

“All my opinions on the subject are in my films.”

 

– Michelangelo Antonioni

 

In 1995, while handing over a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award to Antonioni, the actor Jack Nicholson commented, “In the empty, silent spaces of the world, he has found metaphors that illuminate the silent places of our hearts, and found in them, too, a strange and terrible beauty: austere, elegant, enigmatic, haunting.”

 

Antonioni always had an uncompromising stance on his art.

 

“I do it for an ideal spectator who is this very director. I could never do something against my tastes to meet the public,” Antonioni said when asked whom he made his films for.

 

Set against the backdrop of the swinging 60s, Blow-Up (1966) was perhaps Antonioni’s most commercially successful venture. Starring Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings, Blow Up beautifully captured the mood of London’s bubbling fashion scene.

 

However, L’Avventura (1960) and Il Deserto Rosso, known in English as The Red Desert (1964), are for me Antonioni’s finest works. While the latter deals with environmental degradation as the flipside of human anomie, the former remains essentially a saga of alienation, loneliness and the despair of non-communication.

 

In The Red Desert, Antonioni placed his central character Giuliana (played by Monica Vitti – an Antonioni favorite)  in barren landscapes that symbolized her own emotional void. There is an eerie mood that pervades the film. The viewers would go along with the director in keeping it unresolved. 

 

In L’Avventura as Anna’s best friend wore Anna’s clothes and dressed like her after her strange disappearance, we hear the melancholic strain of an uncertain relationship resulting in insecurities – a recurrent theme of Antonioni.

 

Antonioni was preceded by the great Italian neo-realist film movement. However, Antonioni, barring his early creations, never seemed to be influenced by it as he always emphasized on effects rather than the causes of social and political change. “I think filmmakers should always try to reflect the times in which they live – not so much to express and interpret events in their most direct and tragic form, but rather to capture their effect upon us,” he said. This explains why Antonioni’s cinema is free from any tension arising out of the conflict between Catholicism and Marxism that marks some of the most powerful cinema of the neo-realist era like Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948).

 

By shunning conventional narrative, Antonioni didn’t allow his audience the easy pleasure of viewing realistic illusions. He created an unstable world where the characters don’t seem to act; they, like the audience, merely observe the vagaries of life as they unfold before them. The camera follows their gaze instead of focusing on them as objects. One scene dissolves into another as one kind of relationship dissolves into another. In the evolution of the language of cinema, this remains Antonioni’s monumental contribution. 

 

Antonioni instituted melancholic landscapes as a signature image for his forlorn characters. Trained as an architect, he used planes, angles and heights in visualizing scenes to an extent perhaps unmatched in the history of world cinema. He had a magical ability to infuse concrete objects with moods and meaning as amply demonstrated in the insular buildings of Zabriske Point (1968) and the solemn manufacturing plants with their ‘angry’ chimneys in The Red Desert.

 

For Antonioni, the protagonist who would embody his point of view was frequently a woman. In L’Avventura, the camera follows Claudia (played by the ethereal Monica Vitti) to observe as an outsider and remain emotionally distant from the love affairs.  In L’Eclisse (1962), Vittoria (played by Monica Vitti) enters the stock exchange and through her gaze we observe the rowdy stock traders. In La Notte (1961), the camera picks up Lidia (played by Jeanne Moreau) from the crowd on the sidewalk. In a series of shots, we understand Lidia searching for any acquaintance, a kind human contact – the perennial subject of Antonioni – a loner’s struggle for meaningful existence in a mechanized world symbolized by trolleys, scooters and cars.

 

Another interesting aspect of Antonioni’s oeuvre is his seductive usage of the persistence of vision. He once admitted, “I need to follow my characters beyond the moments conventionally considered important, to show them even when everything appears to have been said.” This penchant for languid movements can be seen in shots of people walking aimlessly, unable to find themselves, not sure of their destinations.  

 

Lasting impressions of Antonioni’s aesthetic triumphs are too many to keep count of. Still, some of them stand out in my memory – the playful coyness of the actress Monica Vitti in the company of the actor Marcello Mastrioanni in La Notte, the mosaic of colors, shapes, patterns and forms of emotions in The Red Desert, the lyrical mysticism associated with the island and the characters in L’Avventura.

 

“For me, the human face is the most important subject of cinema”

 

– Ingmar Bergman

 

Being the son of a clergyman, Ingmar Bergman was both fascinated and terrorized by religion. His cinema reflected his lifelong quest of making sense of faith.

 

Reflecting on Bergman’s cinema, the French film-maker Jean-Luc Goddard commented once, “Nothing can be more classically romantic.”

 

Bergman rarely failed to elicit outstanding performances from his actors. Throughout his life, Bergman was actively involved with theatre and its influence showed in his structuring of scenes, dialogues and performances of the actors.

 

It is unfortunate that some critics characterize Bergman too much with extreme close-ups, static tableaux, monochromatic contrasts and a cold, Swedish temperament. Actually, beyond all these peripheral signanges, Bergman’s cinema is all about questioning man’s place in God’s plan. He raised questions on mortality, the afterlife and the struggle between life and death.

 

Bergman used apparently non sequitur imageries to make his point. For example, in The Seventh Seal (1957), Death allegorically appeared onscreen in the shadow of the possible extinction of human civilization in the nuclear age of post-World War II. He once commented, “In the Middle Ages man lived in terror of the plague. Today they live in fear of the atomic bomb”.

 

It’s the ‘Middle Ages’ which Bergman resorted to in many of his films as a foil to the modern, 20th century world. His quest comes through in the knight’s confession, in The Seventh Seal “Why must God hide in vague promises and invisible miracles?… What will become of us who want to believe but cannot?”

 

In one of the greatest moments of world cinema, in The Seventh Seal, the knight plays chess with Death. Bergman’s persistent search for the meaning of life and death finds expression in a stark conversation between the knight and Death:

 

Knight: Who are you?

Death: I am Death.

Knight: Have you come for me?

Death: I have been walking by your side for a long time.

Knight: That I know.

Death: Are you prepared?

Knight: My body is frightened, but I am not.

Death: Well, there is no shame in that.

 

The encounter with one’s own mortality was repeated again in the first dream sequence of  Dr. Isak Borg (an unforgettable performance by Victor Sjostrom) in Wild Strawberries (1957). Here again, Bergman puts individuals out of themselves in their honest interrogation of the life they have lived.

 

One of Bergman’s strongest motifs is the mirror – the gap between the face and the mask. In Persona (1966), Elisabeth (played by the magnificent Liv Ullman)breaks down on stage during her performance as she is caught in a state between herself and someone else. Time and again, Bergman placed his characters in front of a mirror to examine self-knowledge or to confront the gaze of others, like Karin’s and Anna’s in front of a mirror in Cries and Whispers (1973)).

 

 Bergman used extreme close-ups most tellingly. For him, the human face was the stage on which the drama of our lives could be witnessed.

 

The mental state of a rootless, sequestered individual in Bergman’s cinema was often depicted by black-and-white cinematography as well as physical setting like the island surrounded by the sea in Through a Glass Darkly (1961), the snow forming a white void in the otherwise dull surrounding in Winter Light (1963), an island in Persona, Shame (1968), and Hour of the Wolf (1968).

 

In Bergman’s cinema, through physical and other confinements, men and women travel to communicate, to bridge gaps; like the journey through a plague-devastated land in The Seventh Seal , the journey in the car in Wild Strawberries, the train compartment in The Silence (1963), the boat in Shame (1968), the movement within the several chambers and rooms of a single house in Cries and Whispers, the silhouettes of caravan  in Naked Night (1953) and the four buildings in  the deeply autobiographical Fanny and Alexander (1982).

 

Antonioni and Bergman are no more with us. But what they have left behind will be with us forever.

 

– Amitava Nag.

 

(A different version of this article was published in New Quest, 169, July – September 2007).

 

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