“I am forever living in my childhood.” — Ingmar Bergman
Ingmar Bergman is eight years old in the mid-1920s; his family nickname is Pu. It is hard to say how his mother, nurse Karin Åkerblom, feels about him, but, at least according to Söndagsbarn, he was the apple of his father Erik’s eye. This wistful, lovely film was directed by Daniel Bergman (International Critics’ Prize, Montreal) from his father’s autobiographical script. It is painfully divided, perhaps by the competing motives of Daniel and Ingmar, perhaps originally by those of Ingmar and Pu. Throughout, one senses that the film might have been directed very differently, generating a very different, and inferior, result.
The film’s principal and culminating event is a day-trip that Erik and Pu make together, by bicycle, train and ferry. Pu the morning before the trip overhears a solemn conversation between his parents. Karin, more her mother’s daughter than her husband’s wife, feels imprisoned with Erik, an energetic Lutheran priest, and wants to take their three children and separate for a while; Erik has always felt alone and now feels humiliated, the class divide between him and Karin as deep as ever. (See Bille August’s The Best Intentions, 1982, written by Bergman, about Bergman’s parents’ courtship.) The next day Erik will guest-preach in another parish; hence the trip. For the most part it is a blissful moment of father-son intimacy, somewhat interrupted by a hard slapping that Erik administers onboard a ferry when Pu’s behavior terrifies his father that Pu might drown. Bicycling back home in a rainstorm, the pair take refuge in an open barn; lightning strikes a tree in their sight, and Erik takes off his jacket and wraps it around his son—an action that director Bergman shows us, poignantly, twice, first, from behind them inside the barn, and again from the front. Earlier, Erik apologized for losing his temper and explained to Pu the alarm that momentarily took hold of his heart. The film ends in the past, with father and son closely, warmly bonding, both soaked, together going home.
But four or five times during its (long) course the film flashforwards to the late sixties, with a fifty-year-old Ingmar visiting his widowed father, who is very sick and who is pouring over Karin’s diaries. “What did I do wrong?” he asks his son, who is cold, unfeeling, unkind, unforgiving. Ingmar tells Erik that he, his siblings and their mother were all fearful of his rages, which seemed to target them out of the blue. And yet what we see is a humble, remorseful old man who is being pointlessly confronted by an unbending, nearly monstrously inhuman son—one whom the father, from his deathbed, blesses. Is this what the scenarist wanted us to see? Was he challenging his own cruelty to his father, suggesting how his own hostility toward his father, in his relations with this man, turned him into an image of how he saw his father? Or has the filmmaker given us a perspective on things at odds with his father’s? I don’t know. I know I will never know.
Thommy Berggren, Bo Widerberg’s Joe Hill twenty-one years earlier, gives a wonderful performance as Erik Bergman.