WILD STRAWBERRIES (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

Isak Borg travels to pick up an award at Lund University for fifty years of medical practice. Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, Smultronstället won numerous top prizes in its day and still places on knowledgeable lists of the ten best movies ever made; but some of us can’t stand it. It ends with heroic calm as Borg, content with his life, goes to bed for the night, free of the anxieties that have been besetting him as he approaches death; but not all Bergman’s choices are salutary.
     Pauline Kael was right that Borg’s is a “lumpen odyssey.” Only a little less tedious than his encounters on the road, for instance, with a studiedly rambunctious bunch of young folk, are his familial and lost-love recollections that, because of his age, penetrate another world. This material is exceedingly hard to navigate; despite the title, it’s no poignant trip to a cherished patch of memory. One of the dream passages is famous and impressive, with Borg confronting himself in a coffin; but whereas Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931), which inspired this dash of mortal anxiety, is dreamlike, Bergman’s dream seems heavily literary/theatrical. The beautiful black-and-white cinematography is as smooth as a glossy photograph.
     The major acting is not a problem. Victor Sjöström, the pioneering Swedish filmmaker, is tremendous as the very difficult Isak Borg, whom at least his longtime housekeeper loves. Ingrid Thulin is even better as Marianne, Borg’s tolerant daughter-in-law, who must cope with a difficult marriage for which Bergman, who is fond of blame, blames Isak. Naima Wifstrand is briefly wonderful as Borg’s ancient mother. Bibi Andersson as two Saras, one of the kids and Borg’s long-ago love, is fortunate in neither role, however; and the connection between the two is more clever than savvy.

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