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The Cinema of Bergman and Antonioni

July 29, 2015 | By

Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman both passed away on July 30, 2007 in the span of a few hours. Silhouette pays a tribute on their death anniversary.

“I do it for an ideal spectator who is this very director. I could never do something against my tastes to meet the public”— this is what he said when asked who he made his films for. In 1995 he was handed a lifetime achievement Academy Award presented to him by Jack Nicholson who 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”. In the true meaning of these terms, his cinema had slow pace, sparse dialogues and a pronounced lack of structured narrative.

On the other side lies this other director who toyed with the issues of mortality, death and the existential being in almost all his major films. Reflecting on his cinema Jean-Luc Godard once commented, ‘Nothing can be more classically romantic’.

Meet Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman: the two master filmmakers who along with few others ensured that cinema is essentially an art form on par with classic disciplines like painting and music. On July 30, 2007 as both of them passed away in the span of a few hours (Antonioni at 94 and Bergman at 89), the entire film community was shocked by this coincidence. This piece is just a small tribute to these geniuses—not a journalistic obituary; rather, a sublime retrospect. 

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

Michelangelo Antonioni

Though Antonioni was never keen to appease the mainstream audiences, his 1966 film Blow-Up (set against the backdrop of ‘swinging 60’s’ London, starring Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings) was probably his most commercially successful venture. It was able to capture the mood of London amidst the bubbling fashion scene. The use of photography – both still and motion, remains, to date, inspirational to budding photographers the world over.

The trailer of Blowup

However, L’Avventura (1960) remains for me his finest work along with the inimitable colour masterpiece: The Red Desert (1964). Whereas the latter dealt with industrial pollution and environmental illness, the former was essentially a human saga of alienation, loneliness and the utter despair of non-communication. Here, the director placed his central character in dusty, barren landscapes that symbolized his own emotional void. There is an awkward sensation all along, a mystery which the viewers would love to keep unresolved—but sail along with the central character’s quest for the meaning of life.

Monica Vitti as the mesmerizing Claudia in L’Avventura

Monica Vitti as the mesmerizing Claudia in L’Avventura

In L’Avventura, as Anna’s best friend Claudia wore Anna’s clothes and dressed like her after Anna mysteriously disappeared (and also became the new woman for Anna’s lover), we hear the melancholy tune of an uncertain relationship, resulting in insecure identities—of love and self. This feeling of insecurity flows in as the theme philosophy of most of Antonioni’s cinema.

It is important to note that Antonioni was preceded by the great Italian neo-realist film movement. However, Antonioni, barring his initial few films, never seemed to be influenced by it as he always emphasized the 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.” This is probably the reason why his cinema is largely devoid of any tension arising from the conflict between Catholicism and Marxism that marks some of the most political cinema of the neo-realist era in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) or Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948).

By shunning the path of conventional narrative, the audience is stripped of the security of viewing a realistic illusion—a plot to relate to easily rather than a juxtaposition of emotions which at worst can be eerily un-adventured. Antonioni’s world is unstable, the characters don’t seem to act; they, like us (the audience), merely observe the vagaries of life as it unfolds before them; the camera follows their gaze instead of focusing on them as the objects. The dissolution of one scene and the beginning of another opens up newer possibilities like the fading away of one love relation into another. This philosophical standpoint dwells very aptly on the structure of cinema as an art form and remains essentially unique to Antonioni, becoming his signature.

The Red Desert

The concrete landscape and the ‘angry’ chimneys in The Red Desert.

And in putting up these multifarious, multiple possibilities, Antonioni used actual and metaphorical deserts as his constant image, cinema after cinema. As opposed to the pessimist embodiment of his human characters, he introduced melancholy landscapes as an aesthetic counter-balance to his dispirited human characters. Having an architect’s eye for detail, Antonioni used planes, angles and heights to an extent perhaps no other film-maker in the history of cinema ever dared to do. He used these inanimate concrete objects to reflect certain moods: the rude, arrogant buildings of Zabriskie Point (1968) or the hapless, solemn, ‘grey’ industries with their ‘angry’ chimneys in The Red Desert.

For Antonioni, the protagonist driving his film’s point-of-view was frequently a woman. In L’Avventura the camera followed Claudia (along with the audience) to observe as an outsider and remain emotionally distant from the love affairs of her friends. In L’Eclisse Vittoria entered the stock exchange and through her gaze (identified with the camera) we observe the rowdy stock traders. In La Notte (1961) the camera picked up Lidia from the crowd on the sidewalk. In a series of shots we understand Lidia as someone searching for any acquaintance, a kind human contact—a recurrent Antonioni theme: a loner’s existence in a cruel world of trolleys, scooters and cars which strangle his/her survival.

Another interesting aspect of Antonioni’s oeuvre is his provocative, seductive use of time duration by playing on the persistent vision of the audience. 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 restlessness can be observed in the shots of people walking aimlessly, unable to find themselves or others, not sure of their preferred destinations, if any. This lasting impression of aesthetic estrangement is achieved in several ways: in the taut tension of playful coyness between Monica Vitti and Marcello Mastroianni in La Notte, the mosaics of colour, shape, 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. Almost throughout, he had a quest: making sense of the unknown, and having faith or the lack of it. This quest drove the director to break away from the darkness and angst usually associated with his cinema to an undercurrent of profound humanism, love for mankind and a joyous celebration of innocence. Bergman’s forte was the performances he coaxed from his actors. Throughout his life Bergman was actively involved in theatre and the influence flowed onto the screen, in setting up scenes and also in his reference to theatre, or rather, ‘performance’ in his cinema.

Unfortunately, Bergman is considered by many as only gloomy and dull—extreme close-ups, static tableaus, monochromatic contrasts and the bitter, numb ruthlessness of his Nordic home. But, at the core of it are the pensive expressions of man’s place within God’s arrangement; that’s why he raised questions about mortality, faith, the after-life and the tussle between living and dying. An existentialist to the hilt, Bergman used symbols and apparently non sequitur imagery to make his points. For example, in The Seventh Seal (1957), Death was presented as an interesting proposition; of metaphysical allegory as well as a signifier of mass holocaust and the extinction of human civilization in the post-World War II Nuclear age (He once commented: “In the Middle Ages man was terrorized by the plague. Today he lives in fear of the atomic bomb”. It’s the ‘Middle Ages’ which Bergman resorted to in many of his films as a medium to portray the opposite of our modern world). His confusion came out through the Knight’s confession: “Why must God hide behind 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. Before that, Bergman’s existential linkage is exposed through the brutally simple yet utterly dark 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 memorable chess playing scene between the Knight and Death in The Seventh Seal

The encounter with one’s own mortality was repeated again in the first dream sequence of Isak in Wild Strawberries (1957). Here again, Bergman puts individuals outside of themselves in an honest interrogation of their own life and deeds.

The juxtaposition of identities in Persona.

The juxtaposition of identities in Persona.

One of the strongest philosophical positions that Bergman took is in the form of a ‘mirror’—the gap between the face and the mask. In Persona (1966), Elisabet broke down on stage in her performance as she was caught in a state between herself and someone else. Time and again, Bergman placed his characters in front of the ‘mirror’ to examine themselves or to confront another’s gaze (Karin and Anna in front of the actual mirror in Cries and Whispers (1973). The search for identity (which is also established in Bergman’s portrayal of encounters with Death as mentioned above) was depicted on screen by extreme close-ups of one or two individuals. As in the quote at the head of this section, the human face was, for Bergman, the canvas which reflects all the human drama in its stark naked presentation.

The image of a rootless, sequestered individual in Bergman’s cinema was depicted by and large in black-and-white cinematography. The individuals were also set on barren islands or landscapes: the island surrounded by the sea in Through a Glass Darkly (1961), the snow forming a white void in otherwise dull surroundings in Winter Light (1963), an island setting in Persona, Shame (1968), and Hour of the Wolf (1968). And confined in this way, man travelled to communicate, to bridge gaps: travelling across a plague-devastated land in The Seventh Seal, travelling in a car in Wild Strawberries, the train compartment in The Silence (1963), the boat in Shame, the movement within several chambers and rooms of a single house in Cries and Whispers, the silhouettes of a caravan in Naked Night (1953), and the four buildings in Fanny and Alexander (1982).

The Indian context

Just as the two differed in their philosophy, so were they in style. While Bergman followed the more classical path of established cinema techniques, Antonioni experimented with very long takes and florid tracking shots, thereby landscaping his frames—articulating each detail with great care and using cinema to tell us what keeps people apart and isolated. Apart from this superficial difference, both wanted, in essence, to extract meaning from life in today’s chaotic world.

Working for over four decades, both of them had been influential, becoming – icons to latter day film-makers. Woody Allen, for example, has remained forever indebted to Bergman—in a number of films we find motifs and philosophical viewpoints of and references to Bergman and his cinema (as Allen’s character comments in Manhattan – “Bergman’s the only genius in cinema today”). Antonioni on the other hand, has influenced the new generation of Chinese film-makers to a great extent. However, the deep personal style of these two geniuses ensured that their techniques stem from the general mood of their cinema, which is an especially philosophical journey.

In the Indian context, it is difficult to figure out the direct influences of Bergman and Antonioni. Many Indian film-makers have been respectful towards both of them, but it is hard to find references to the influence of these two film-makers in their own work. However, there are resemblances which we could say are probable inspirations. In Kundan Shah’s satirical Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), for example, a murder was accidentally photographed and later revealed in the darkroom, as in Blow-Up.

Buddhadeb Dasgupta for one has used space and landscape to great effect in Indian cinema in Charachar (1993), Bagh Bahadur (1989) and Uttara (2000) where, like Antonioni, he showed how space can communicate with humans in a time when inter-personal communication is on the verge of breaking down. In Dasgupta’s Lal Darja (1997), the mechanization of today’s world makes the protagonist feel as if he would turn into a robot—his anxious, disturbed existence is reminiscent of the female protagonist in The Red Desert.

Unishe April and Autumn Sonata

(L) The mother and daughter of Unishe April, inspired from Autumn Sonata. (R) The mother and daughter in Autmn Sonata

Rituporno Ghosh’s Unishe April (1994) and Khalid Mohamed’s Hindi film Tehzeeb (2003)—which is officially dedicated to Ingmar Berman—both deal with the relationship between a celebrity mother and her neglected daughter; a story similar to Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978).

Satyajit Ray’s conceptualization of disjunctive montage in Nayak (1966), where an actor unwinds during a long journey, has a close correspondence with Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, where a doctor unravels his heart in similar ways—both are at the height of their personal achievements and rewards. In both there were disturbing dream sequences reflecting the inner turmoil and conflict of the characters.

The depressing, frightening dreams of the doctor in Wild Strawberries

Looking back at the evolution of ‘art’ cinema in the Indian context, one cannot overlook the fact that Bergman and Antonioni’s films were first seen in large numbers in India only since the mid-60s. Ray’s Calcutta Trilogy and Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (1969) all dealt with a new form of isolation that didn’t depict the ‘grand narrative’ (as in Ray’s Apu Trilogy where we get to see a complete ‘story’).In doing so, both directors moved away from their earlier trend and made cinema of and about the individual placed within the contemporary world—aesthetically, an influence they may have derived from their western counterparts, who had already shifted to cinema about the common ‘individual’.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s early work, Kodiyettam (1977) chronicled the life of a nobody (this common ‘individual’) who drifted aimlessly, much like Aldo in Antonioni’s Il Grido (1957), who abandoned his past and embarked on an aimless quest. The other great Malayali director, G. Aravindan was probably influenced less, in spite of his marked concern for the linear narrative and the extensive use of poetry and long takes. For Aparna Sen, Bergman had been an interesting influence: “Bergman did influence my thinking. Bergman’s influence doesn’t show in my films, but a little bit of it comes through in Yugant. It is there for instance in the innocence of the fisher folk and the character played by Anjan Dutt”. In her first feature, 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981) the black-and-white dream sequence of Violet (she saw her house, pushed open the door to a graveyard next to an ocean where a strange ritual was being performed) seems to be influenced by a number of Bergman’s dream sequences.

To sum up, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni had inspired generations of film-makers, scholars and viewers worldwide, though to pinpoint their signature in any other director’s work is a difficult task. Fortunately, that doesn’t take anything away from being enriched by the entire gamut of their creations.

(This article is slightly modified from a tribute by the author shortly after the death of both in 2007. The original article is available in the author’s blog)

More to read

Where Morality Counts
An Attempt At Understanding Woody Allen
Theo Angelopoulos And Greece

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Amitava Nag is an independent film critic based in Kolkata and editor of Silhouette. His most recent book on cinema is Satyajit Ray’s Heroes and Heroines published by Rupa. He has also authored the acclaimed Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite film roles of Soumitra Chatterjee published by Harper Collins India. He also writes poetry and short fiction in Bengali and English – observing life in a platter.
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