Saturday, September 22, 2012

Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries - Introspective Narrative Takes a Dynamic Pace

Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom), a surly 78 year old physician, is taking the long road from Stockholm to Lund to accept his honorary degree award from a university. But this recognition seems to provoke Bunuelesque nightmares, daydreams and bittersweet remembrances from his younger days. Unexpectedly, his pregnant daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), who isn’t exactly fond of him, asks to take the ride with him to see Evald, Isak’s son (Gunnar Bjornstrand) – a physician in Lund. Marianne’s pregnancy has been causing dissent in the couple’s otherwise harmonious relations – he doesn’t want children. This caused Marianne to runaway, seeking refuge in her querulous father-in-law’s house in the Swedish capital.

Along the way, Isak and Marianne meet of flurry of characters: there’s young and ebullient Sara (Bibi Andersson) and her two admirers Anders and Viktor (Folke Sundquist and Bjorn Bjelfvenstam) who bring back memories of Isak’s younger days when his girlfriend (a cousin named Sara) got married instead to his younger brother Sigfrid (Per Sjostrand); then there’s the middle aged couple whose constant squabbling almost caused a fatal vehicular accident. The road is long – around 320 miles (515 kilometers) and takes about 5 hours to drive. 

The group takes a side trip to the Professor’s ancestral home by the sea; a quaint neighbourhood punctuated by trees and wild strawberries growing amidst hedges. These remembrances further stir the professor to take stock of his past; a nebulous past when people thought highly of his character. In fact, at a gas stop, the owners fill up his car and wouldn’t hear of accepting payment – to honour the professor’s kindness in his younger days. “I should have stayed here,” Professor Isak muses.

When Professor Borg finally receives the award, he realizes that the pomp and pageantry of his recognition were nothing but an empty ritual. There were bigger, more important things to celebrate, like Marianne and Evald’s reconciliation. That night, Borg’s sleep was dreamless and peaceful. There was a smile on his face. 

Professor Borg takes a road trip with his daughter-in-law Marianne.

Swedish film master Ingmar Bergman gives a surprisingly dynamic storytelling tack to subjects (twilight years of life, aging, regret) that would usually take an introspective, albeit indolent and deliberate pace. In the film, Professor Borg is mostly contemplative. It is thus a wonder how Bergman imbues his story with vibrancy, enough to sustain attention. As a film maker, he doesn’t like his stories “slow”. He scoffs at Michaelangelo Antonioni’s style, referring to “Il Grido”: “Damn, what a boring movie it is.” He further discusses the Italian director: “Antonioni never really learned the trade. He concentrated on single images, never realizing that film is a rhythmic flow of images, a movement. Sure, there are brilliant moments in his films.” He didn’t even like “L’Avventura” and thought Monica Vitti was a “terrible actress”. (I personally loved that film and think highly of Vitti, one of the golden age’s most charming actresses, but then that’s just me.) His tirade against the other film master really underlines his storytelling style: fluid.


There are traces of misogyny, like when Bergman refers to the "vices of women": weeping, giving birth, and speaking ill of neighbors. Had he not referred to himself as "an old pedant", it would have been unforgivable. But then this was an era where women didn't exactly enjoy social equality with men - and it wasn't fashionable then to be "politically correct". If I were to ask you what men have as vices, would the list be as unflattering? 

The story takes aging and regrets to the road. What other film is brave enough to tackle such subjects? Would Cinemalaya be daring enough to cover these subjects? It’s possible, but highly unlikely. Who would be its captive audience? Did Brillante Mendoza have enough audience for his “Lola”? Did Adolf Alix’s “Adela”? My point here is, it’s not the easiest subject to sell. But Bergman captures the audience’s attention from Borg’s very first nightmare: he finds himself in an empty town with broken houses and clocks with no hands (a recurring image in Bergman’s ouvre). Then an empty horse-drawn carriage traipses the streets with a hearse. And the body inside was Borg’s.

Though Gunnar Fischer’s black and white cinematography is beautiful, you somehow wonder how the setting would look on color cinema (the film was produced in 1957). I can easily imagine the stark beauty of the hedges and the wild strawberries surrounding Borg’s ancestral home. Furthermore, “Wild Strawberries” remind me of Mes de Guzman’s “Diablo”. The sense of closure from both films is quite familiar. Couldn’t he have gotten his inspiration from Bergman? 

Sara and Isak in one of our protagonist's daydreams.

Isak's nightmare involving bacteriological examinations he couldn't seem to pass.

Ingrid Thulin and Gunnar Bjornstrand play married couple Marianne and Evald..

Ingmar Bergman as a young man. He would produce theatrical puppet shows.


Anonymous said...

Off I go to buy a DVD copy of this film

I've studied Bergman's "Wild Strawberries" in class but never viewed the film in its totality.


Cathy Pena said...

Randy, This film is a "must" for film lovers. Yes, grab a copy or borrow one. ;)