On the same day, two giants of the cinema gone. For anyone who grew up in the golden age of cinephilia—that remarkable period between the end of the 1950s and the mid ‘70s, when movies held pride of place at the white-hot center of the culture—the passing of Ingmar Bergman, 89, and Michelangelo Antonioni, 94, is the kind of double whammy that slams the door on an era.
They will be remembered, however, for the doors of perception they opened. If you were a teenager raised on Hollywood movies, your first encounter with Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” or “The Seventh Seal” was a life-altering experience, a shocking immersion into Swedish angst, expressionistic dream sequences, daunting symbolism (clocks without hands!) and a brooding black-and-white existentialism that was a slap in the face to the Technicolor optimism of your childhood fantasies. A few years later (in 1960, to be precise) came Antonioni’s rule-breaking “L’Avventura,” a mystery without a solution, a despairing but oddly beautiful dissection of alienated, affluent Italians slowly roasting in their well-appointed ennui. This was something new, a cinematic vocabulary that hadn’t been seen before, and like all breakthroughs, took getting used to.
Bergman’s artistic roots could be traced to the theatre (“Persona” couldn’t exist without Strindberg’s “The Stronger”), to German Expressionist movies (“The Naked Night”) and to a stern Lutheran clergyman father whose malign influence he was still battling late in his long career (his superb family epic, “Fanny and Alexander”). But the argument with a cruel or absent God that runs throughout his films gave way to a more personal, psychological—and equally scalding—probing of the devastating battles between husbands and wives, fathers and sons, sisters and brothers. Bergman’s men are usually cold, emotionally crippled, capable of great cruelty, while his women hold out the promise of love, shelter, redemption.
Bergman’s great canvas was the human face, often in close up. Antonioni’s men and particularly his women (Monica Vitti was his muse in “L’Avventura,” “The Eclipse” and “Red Desert”) were figures in a landscape, often dwarfed by their surroundings, adrift in his strikingly modern, gorgeously unfriendly spaces. His camera prowled ceaselessly, languorously—and never more memorably than in that swooping, enigmatic tracking shot exploring the piazza outside the hotel where Jack Nicholson has just died in “The Passenger”—while Bergman’s stayed in place, staring down his demons.
Both these great filmmakers, in their radically different way, made art out of despair, poetry out of pessimism. But where Bergman, the lapsed Protestant, put up a fight, and occasionally allowed himself a blast of joy (his wonderful film of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”), the modish Mediterranean Antonioni seemed mesmerized by his own desolation: it’s the beauty of the images in “Blow Up” that lingers with us long after we’ve forgotten what that movie has to “say” about decadent London in the 1960s. His refined eye redefined how we look at the world, and his style has influenced a whole new generation of international art-house filmmakers, who emulate his long elegant takes and his coolly disenchanted sensibility.
Resolute nonbelievers, Bergman and Antonioni were themselves viewed as high priests of the cinema. A generation of filmgoers worshiped at their shrine. How distant those days are. But if our faith in high art has lost its fervor, the films themselves remain—”La Notte,” “Shame” “Smiles of a Summer Night”—reminding us of everything movies could hope to be. There are few such masters left.