Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Marc Gervais on Ingmar Bergman.

Given that I spent the early part of this month in a place where I had only sporadic access to the Internet, I shouldn't be surprised that it took me three weeks to come across this article from the Montreal Gazette in which Jesuit film scholar Marc Gervais reflects on the death of Ingmar Bergman. Though it's old news, I feel compelled to post on this item because of the role that Bergman and Gervais have played in my own Jesuit vocation. I've written a few times before (to be precise, here, here and here) on my appreciation of Ingmar Bergman's films and on the small "cameo role" that Canadian Jesuit and Bergman expert Marc Gervais played in my vocation story. I finally got a chance to meet Gervais while I was in Montreal in March, and as it happens I saw him again when I was back in the city in late May and early June of this year.

I'm not going to rehash what I've already written about Bergman and Gervais, so you'll have to refer to the links above if you want more of a backstory for this post. For now, here's what the Gazette has to say about Gervais' reaction to Bergman's death:

Marc Gervais, a leading authority on Ingmar Bergman, got quite the shock Monday evening [July 30th] on his return from a brief vacation in Maine. News of Bergman's death hit the airwaves Monday morning but the Montreal writer and scholar didn't learn of the passing of the iconic Swedish film auteur until he arrived home to a slew of telephone messages that night after driving home from Goose Rocks with his brother and [his brother's] wife.

"It was a blow, like (a death in the) family," said Gervais, on the phone Tuesday. "I felt like some of my past was dying. He was so central to my life."

Gervais, a Jesuit priest, has been obsessed with Bergman ever since he caught a double bill of Bergman's atypical romantic comedy Smiles of a Summer Night and the wild Biblical allegory The Seventh Seal while studying in Washington, D.C., in the late 1950s. He hasn't stopped analyzing, teaching and writing about the Scandanavian film master ever since.
After talking about his own "cordial, if distant" personal relationship with Bergman, Gervais refers to the curious phenomenon of the "Bergman priests" and reflects on the influence that the Swedish director had on the course of his Jesuit life:

Bergman was raised by a strict Lutheran clergyman father, and Gervais believes that dour strain of Lutheranism was central to Bergman's films. But for reasons even Gervais doesn't fully comprehend, there was, for quite some time, a number of what he calls "Bergman priests" scattered across the globe. These Catholic men of the cloth were all fascinated by the religious themes at the core of so many Bergman flicks.

"I was the official Bergman priest for Canada," Gervais said.

. . .

[Gervais] still vividly recalls the night in Washington almost 50 years ago when he first encountered Bergman's unique big-screen vision. Gervais's life changed the moment he laid eyes on these films that didn't shy away from tackling tough questions about faith, spirituality, sexuality and mortality. On the spot, he knew he could make a career of delving into Bergman's work, and that his Jesuit superiors couldn't possibly object to that choice.

"I was just knocked out," said Gervais, now 77. "I said - 'Oh my gosh, this is just perfect.' When I saw Bergman's films and the kinds of topics he was covering, I knew it would be smooth sailing. With the Jesuits and in Catholic universities, if you taught Shakespeare, you'd look at the aesthetics and all that, but there always had to be a side that was heavily spiritual. So when I saw Bergman, I thought that will solve any problem. I won't have to sweet-talk anymore."

In fact, his Jesuit colleagues were mostly delighted by his Bergman infatuation.

"The Jesuits were very good. Most of them were very interested, and, besides, I was doing them a big favour, by bringing a lot of his movies up to the seminary."

Gervais' career as a Bergman scholar stands in a great Jesuit tradition of humanistic inquiry and engagement with contemporary culture. Gervais' reflections on how he first became interested in Bergman's work display a sort of intellectual curiosity that is distinctively, integrally Jesuit. There have been great Jesuit philosophers and theologians, but the Society has also produced great biologists, linguists, mathematicians, poets, and even film scholars. By my lights, this kind of variety is an essential part of who Jesuits are as a corporate body. For me, the breadth and diversity of Jesuit scholarly endeavor bears witness to our charism and mission of finding God in all things. I pray that we always retain this sense of ourselves, and as long as we have men like Marc Gervais in our ranks, I'm sure that we will. AMDG.


At 8/23/2007 9:28 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I appreciated the end bit about the particular Jesuit charism of curiousity. My spiritual director is a Jesuit - not a scientist, though I am one. One day, over lunch at the Jesuit residence where he lives, another Jesuit (thinking I saw a woman on staff there) expressed his surprise that I saw his colleague for direction and asked (in front of my director and to his amusement), why him? And without hesitating, the reason I gave was that he was deeply curious about the world and how God is at work in it - perfect match for a scientist.


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