â€¢ The films of Ingmar Bergman, the famed Swedish director who moved to Munich last year because of harassment by the Swedish IRS, have been variable in quality. Some have been gems. The Virgin Spring, for example, was a classical Greek tragedy, perfectly etched from beginning to end; and Wild Strawberries was an emotionally intense work, full of human insight. On the other hand, some films, such as Hour of the Wolf and Winter Light, sometimes became mystical to the point of unintelligibility, with obscure symbolism and characters reveling in their neuroses without doing much of anything except making cryptic utterances.
His latest, filmed in Norway, AUTUMN SONATA, is among his finest. There is no lack of clarity here, no confusion between what is real and what is imagined; there is profundity without pretentiousness, and the cup of human passion overflows, so much that the experience may be too shatteringly intense for some viewers. Two marvelous actresses, Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman, are at their peak of accomplishment in twin starring roles as mother and daughter. What begins as a meeting between the sensitive but insecure daughter and the proud selfish mother, who have not seen each other for seven years, becomes a series of self-revelations that are emotionally gripping and psychologically compelling. The film (in Swedish with English titles) provides the two actresses with the occasion for performances that (and for them, this is saying a lot) they have never excelled. Ingmar Bergman as script writer is even more remarkable in this instance than he is as director. The photography by Sven Nyquist is brilliant as always, and in addition there is excellent Chopin and Bach: the scene in which the mother explains to her daughter the meaning of a Chopin etude is all by itself worth seeing the film for.
The flow of emotion is continuous and intense, though visually the film is somewhat static. This uncinematic feature is made up for, however, by moving faces in constant close-ups, an in-depth study in character as expressed in the human face. As we see each event from the point of view of both women, one identifies strongly with each of them in turn, and with almost unbearably strong empathy.
This film is most reminiscent of one of the great silent films, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) by the great Danish director Carl Dreyer. Joan consists almost entirely of close-ups of human facesâ€"Joan's and those of each of her judges. Not until Autumn Sonata has there been another film consisting so exclusively of close-ups registering the shifting patterns of expression on human faces. With faces as beautiful as those of Ullman and Bergman, one sits through the film mesmerizedâ€"exhausted at the end, but with new insight into an array of problems concerning the relation of a deeply sensitive growing child to a mother whose professional career has always been her first consideration. These problems are more deeply probed in this film than they have been in any other.
â€¢ Every film directed by Franklin Schaffner is, like his Patton, meticulously planned, plotted, acted, photographed, and directed. The same is true in THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. The only question here is whether the whole enterprise was worth it.
It gathers momentum with extreme slowness, and because of the diversity of the characters it is difficult to relate them all or to get involved with any of them. It all comes together in timeâ€"the reason for the multiple assassinations, the cause of the look-alike children, and the rest, though it all happens so slowly that the audience becomes restive. Also, Gregory Peck is not that convincing a villainâ€"he would do well to stick to virtue. James Mason is his usual silken self, and it is gratifying to see Lilli Palmer again after so long an absence, albeit in a trifling part. The fine acting in this film, and it is very fine indeed, is all done by Sir Laurence Olivier as the unwitting sleuth. As so often in recent years, the film in which he stars is unworthy of him, but there are so many layers of subtlety in his characterization that for his sake alone one might well go to see the film.
But the main thing wrong with the film is its absurd sense of proportion. Thirty-three years have elapsed since the demise of the Nazi regime, and Hollywood still presents it as the world's greatest enemy in 1978. It was somewhat plausible in that fine thriller of a few years back, The Odessa File, but the theme of German neo-Nazism has worn too thin, and the guise in which it appears here is too palpably ridiculous, even though it did come from Ira Levin's novel. With pictures of Hitler plastered over the wall and characters saluting each other with "Heil Hitler!" three decades after his death, even an audience not imbued with a profound sense of history seems to sense its absurdity. Socialist dictatorships are breaking out like an ugly rash all over the world, and we are supposed to consider as a major threat anything that's happening in Paraguay? True, it's probably a nasty little dictatorship, and there may indeed be a few superannuated Nazis still hiding out there, butâ€¦Paraguay? Can grown men seriously participate in making a film in which the major villainy in the world is being concocted there? While they guard the front door against the wasp that stung them many years ago, a king cobra is entering the back door without their giving it the slightest attention. Paraguay?
â€¢ It seems that the cinematic nostalgia trips began with American Graffiti some years back. At the end of all the high-school shenanigans the viewer was informed that each of the characters was a real person, and he was told what each one was doing now, some 15 years later.
In the wake of that highly popular film, many attempts have been made to capture a similar nostalgia, though none have been as successful. Since the same device of identifying the characters at the end, and informing us of their current activities, is used in NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE, we are probably meant to infer that this film also represents a piece of nostalgia. If so, it must be considered a reductio ad absurdum of this overworked genre. It is one thing to be nostalgic about early romances and racing-car pranks; it is another to be nostalgic about an uninterrupted orgy of destruction and meaningless violence. Besides, these are supposed to be college students, though not one of them exhibits any qualifications for entrance even into high school, and after watching even 10 percent of their antics one wants to cheer the dean who expels them all (though he is supposed to be the villain of the piece). After the umpteenth car is destroyed, one would like to take all the money spent on destroying cars and other property to produce this strained and unfunny comedy and use it to provide tuition for these intellectual dropouts to attend trade schoolâ€"provided that any of them could read, for which there is no evidence either.