Friday, August 24, 2007

Ingmar Bergman, Theologian?

The above image comes from Ingmar Bergman's 1962 film Winter Light, a brief look at an afternoon in the life of a Lutheran pastor (played by Gunnar Björnstrand, pictured) facing a crisis of faith. As I've noted already in a number of recent posts, the religious themes that permeate Winter Light are present to one degree or another in nearly all of Bergman's films. In recent days, journalists and scholars alike have taken the opportunity to revisit the question of Bergman's "theology" and to explore the qualities of his work that appealed to people of faith. Following the likes of Peter Steinfels and Marc Gervais, American Jesuit and Boston College film professor Father Richard Blake chimes in on the theological dimensions of Bergman's work with an article in the latest issue of America. Blake did his doctoral dissertation on the role of Lutheranism in the Bergman canon, so his qualifications are hard to dispute. Here is some of what Blake has to say about "Ingmar Bergman, Theologian":
In a flurry of obituary notices, [Ingmar Bergman] has been universally praised as one of the great artists of his time. I would like to add a note of appreciation for Bergman the theologian, or at least, Bergman the religious thinker. No doubt he would reject both terms. He uses images where theologians use words. He crafts dialogue where they construct concepts. He exposes the messiness of the human condition, where they seek clarity. He focuses on the struggling, solitary human figures reaching outward, where they begin their inquiry with a God reaching down, revealing himself. But looking at the films, one sees a congruity in their tasks.

. . . [The Seventh Seal] began a series of seven films that explored the possibility of faith in a post-Holocaust, nuclear age. In The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963), he poses traditional faith questions in identifiably religious language. The characters struggle self-consciously with their inability to believe in God and form relationships with one another. In Wild Strawberries (1957) and The Magician (1958), the issues are veiled in layers of metaphor. The theological questions become apparent only by placing them in the context of the other films of the period. With The Silence he concludes that God is unknowable, and the human person must simply continue life's journey seeking understanding and happiness however one can. At that point, God-questions drop out of his films altogether.

Or do they? For the next 25 years, his self-centered and self-destructive heroes squirm in their own loneliness, unable to find salvation in human terms through their own efforts. In keeping with good Lutheran tradition, Bergman supplies redemption from without, inevitably in the form of a life-giving woman. . . . [Bergman's] later films of relationships can legitimately be read as a continuation in metaphorical terms of the theological questions he explored in his seven "God films." In other
words, I'm suggesting a unified rather than disjunctive reading of his work. . . .

. . . I'm suggesting something more than parallel narratives or interlocking themes in Bergman's work - that is, a cohesive unity in his divine and human quests. The search for love in the later "post-God" works at the very least reflects the strong influence of his earlier theological concerns. Ingmar Bergman expresses the human search according to a religious template. But I would dare to go further: these troubled human relationships also reflect in metaphorical and poetic terms our contemporary, ongoing struggle to discover an authentic relationship to God.
The rest of Father Blake's article is definitely worth reading, though the entire text is unfortunately only available to registered readers of America. Like Blake, I suspect that Bergman "won't be widely mourned by today's movie audiences" given aspects of his filmmaking that many contemporary viewers are likely to find dated or merely challenging. Nonetheless, I hold out a hope that the attention Bergman is getting now will win him new fans. Perhaps you, reader, will be one of them. AMDG.


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