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Top 10 Ingmar Bergman Movies

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I have long been intrigued by dreams, myth, and psychology, and perhaps that explains my attraction to the movies of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Below I've given brief descriptions of 10 of my favorites, ordering them according to the date of their initial theatrical release. I've also tried to sketch an outline of the most productive part of Bergman's filmmaking career. As one who loves humanistic movies, I have found the body of work summarized here to be immensely rewarding.

1. 'Smiles of a Summer Night' (1955)

This comedy of manners is the most elegant I know, and I can see why it won a prize for Best Poetic Humor at Cannes. Set around 1900, the film features three dysfunctional couples: a middle-aged attorney and his teenage wife; an actress and an army officer; and a theology student and a flirtatious maid. When these six people are thrown together with others at a country estate, the romantic relationships get sorted out. Although amusing, the movie has dark undercurrents.

2. 'The Seventh Seal' (1957)

This is the drama that made Bergman famous as one of the giants of world cinema. Set in 14th-century Europe, the film tells the tale of a disillusioned knight who returns home from the Crusades to find his native land ravaged by the plague. I can never forget the image of the knight delaying his own demise by playing chess with Death. But I think what makes this movie audacious is Bergman's theme: man's search for meaning in life in the context of death's inevitability.

3. 'Wild Strawberries' (1957)

Here Bergman continues to explore man's search for meaning, but in a different setting. In 1957, a retired medical professor (Victor Sjöström) makes a long automobile trip to receive an academic honor. Between incidents that occur on the journey, the old man slips into memories and reveries that reveal much about his life. I think Wild Strawberries is a masterful character study and the 78-year-old Sjöström gives the finest performance by an actor in any Bergman film.

4. 'Through a Glass Darkly' (1961)

This film plus the next two on my list are known collectively as the Bergman Trilogy. Set in the early 1960s, the three movies explore faith and alienation. Through a Glass Darkly is about a mentally ill woman, her husband, her father, and her brother vacationing on a remote island, where she believes God appears to her as an ugly spider. I think this movie is memorable for its outstanding screenplay and the fine acting by Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, and Max von Sydow.

5. 'Winter Light' (1963)

The second film in the Bergman Trilogy, Winter Light is about a middle-aged minister who has lost his faith. As his congregation dwindles, his atheistic mistress tries to comfort him, but their relationship makes him uneasy. It seems to me the minister's main concern is that his life's work may be meaningless, but he still hopes that the rituals are important. I like this film for its starkly beautiful cinematography and superb performances by Gunnar Björnstrand and Ingrid Thulin.

6. 'The Silence' (1963)

The title of the final film in the Trilogy refers to God's silence, and beginning with this movie, Bergman shifted his focus from theology to psychology. Also, the filmmaker began to rely less on traditional dramatic conventions and more on dreamlike narratives. The dreamscape in The Silence is inhabited by two sisters and one of them's prepubescent son. One sister is robust and sensual, while the other is deathly ill and cerebral, and I think the boy's psyche is shaped by both women.

7. 'Persona' (1966)

I don't fully understand this film, one of the most challenging ever made, but I think it reflects Bergman's continuing preoccupation with psychology and dreams. The central story involves a nurse and her actress patient, and I believe one of the main ideas is to explore the conflict between the persona—the image we present to others—and the inner self. Among other reasons, I like Persona for its haunting visuals and the outstanding performances of Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann.

8. 'Cries & Whispers' (1972)

Although Bergman became famous for films about man's search for meaning, it seems to me he eventually transitioned to the more general notion of exploring the psyche. Cries & Whispers centers around a death watch over a woman with cancer by three other women and can be seen in Jungian terms as Bergman striving for the anima—the feminine inner personality, as present in the unconscious of the male. I think the performances by Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin, and Harriet Andersson are great.

9. 'The Magic Flute' (1975)

Bergman had loved Mozart's famous opera for years when he adapted it for Swedish television. Set in mythical times, the tale of the quest of the young prince Tamino to win the beautiful Pamina as his bride was well-suited to the filmmaker's penchant for blurring the boundary between dream and reality. Bergman exercised considerable artistic license in adapting the libretto, enhancing the story's Jungian and Freudian overtones, and I rate the result as one of the best of the filmed operas.

10. 'Fanny & Alexander' (1982)

In his 60s, Bergman decided he'd had enough of directing films intended for theatrical release and made this movie as a career grand finale featuring scores of speaking roles, elaborate sets, and lavish costumes. I think of this film as a dreamlike tale being spun by Bergman about his alter ego, 10-year-old Alexander Ekdahl. Although the movie has a feel-good ending, Alexander must deal with deep-seated psychological issues. I prefer the television version of this film to the theatrical one.
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