21 June 2004 | DeeNine-2
When film was an art form
In this symbolic tale of an old man's journey from emotional isolation to a kind of personal renaissance, Ingmar Bergman explores in part his own past, and in doing so rewards us all with a tale of redemption and love.
Victor Sjostrom, then 80 years old, stars as Professor Isak Borg whose self-indulgent cynicism has left him isolated from others. Sjostrom, whose work goes back to the very beginning of the Swedish cinema in the silent film era, both as an actor and as a director, gives a brilliant and compelling performance. All the action of the film takes place in a single day with flashbacks and dream sequences to Borg's past as Borg wakes and goes on a journey to receive a "Jubilee Doctor" degree from the University of Lund. Bergman wrote that the idea for the film came upon him when he asked the question, "What if I could suddenly walk into my childhood?" He then imagined a film "about suddenly opening a door, emerging in reality, then turning a corner and entering another period of one's existence, and all the time the past is going on, alive."
Bibi Andersson plays both the Sara from Borg's childhood, the cousin he was to marry, and the hitchhiker Sara who with her two companions befriends him with warmth and affection. The key scene is when the ancient Borg in dreamscape comes upon the Sara of his childhood out gathering wild strawberries. Borg looks on (unnoticed of course) as his brother, the young Sigfrid, ravishes her with a kiss which she returns passionately; and, as the wild strawberries fall from her bowl onto her apron, staining it red, Borg experiences the pain of infidelity and heartbreak once again. Note that in English we speak of losing one's "cherry"; here the strawberries symbolize emotionally much the same thing for Sara. Later on in the film as the redemption comes, the present day Sara calls out to Borg that it is he that she really loves, always and forever. Borg waves her away from the balcony, yet we are greatly moved by her love, and we know how touched he is.
The two young men accompanying Sara can be seen as reincarnations of the serious and careful Isak Borg and the more carefree and daring Sigfrid. It is as though his life has returned to him as a theater in which the characters resemble those of his past; yet we are not clear in realizing whether the resemblance properly belongs in the old man's mind or is a synchronicity of time returned.
Memorable is Ingrid Thulin who plays Mariana, the wife of Borg's son who accompanies him on the auto trip to Lund. She begins with frank bitterness toward the old man but ends with love for him; and again we are emotionally moved at the transformation. What Bergman does so very well in this film is to make us experience forgiveness and the transformation of the human spirit from the negative emotions of jealousy and a cold indifference that is close to hate, to the redemption that comes with love and a renewal of the human spirit. In quiet agreement with this, but with the edge of realism fully intact, is the scene near the end when Borg asks his long time housekeeper and cook if they might not call one another by their first names. She responses that even at her age, a woman has her reputation to consider. Such a gentle comeuppance meshes well with, and serves as a foil for, all that has gone on before on this magical day in an old man's life.
See this for Bergman who was just then realizing his genius (The Seventh Seal was produced immediately before this film) and for Sjostrom who had the rare opportunity to return to film as an actor in a leading role many decades past him prime, and made the most of it with a flawless performance, his last major performance as he was to die three years later.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)