By PETER STEINFELS
The New York Times
Published: August 4, 2007
In this week’s obituaries for Ingmar Bergman, perhaps no character in the great filmmaker’s work was mentioned more frequently than God.
Michelangelo Antonioni, whose works were unremittingly secular.
God had a leading off-screen role in several of Bergman’s most memorable movies, and supporting or minor roles in many others. God was a protagonist but hardly a hero. The most unforgettable image of the deity was as a terrifying spider that a mentally disturbed young woman believes is about to violate her.
The heroine of another Bergman film suddenly, almost obstinately, becomes mute, but that in fact is God’s major trait in Bergman films generally: God is mute, and this silence signals nonexistence at best, malevolence at worst.
It is an interesting question why so many people serious about religion, believers in particular, feel such a loss at the death of Bergman. His view of religion was anything but benign. He recalled his ultimate loss of faith with great relief. His personal life was not a model. Nor did his films respect proprieties.
One explanation was captured in a phrase appearing in some obituaries and echoed in most. He took on the “big questions” about the human condition: God, faith, desire, doubt, despair, death and, above all, love and its fragility. He did this with a vocabulary of images and language that were often explicitly religious and, when not, were still resonant with implied religious references.
There is an interesting contrast here with Michelangelo Antonioni, the other major filmmaker who died Monday. Of all the other great Italian directors, probably none were so unremittingly secular as Antonioni. His world is severely postreligious, a circumstance that made reflective believers intensely interested in his work, too. For Antonioni, however, the passage from religion was simply a fact; for Bergman it was a struggle.
The godless world portrayed by both directors was bleak, to put it mildly. Along with much of modern culture, they judged sensual life and human love to be the alternative and successor to religion as the repository of human hopes for fulfillment; but in their films those hopes regularly prove fleeting, illusory or betrayed by human (usually male) weakness.
So were believers, and again Christians foremost, drawn to these directors as powerful witnesses to what happened when God was declared dead? No doubt some religious defenders wanted to employ these bleak visions in a smug apologetic for faith, a greater temptation perhaps in the case of Antonioni, a post-Christian Italian, than of Bergman, an ex-Christian Swede. But for the most part, religious admirers of these directors treated them and their films not as object lessons for nonbelievers about the consequences of nonbelief but rather as revelations for believers about the true challenges of faith.
There is a straightforward little book, for example, called “God, Death, Art and Love: The Philosophical Vision of Ingmar Bergman” (Paulist Press, 1989), written by the Rev. Robert E. Lauder and including a touching prologue by Liv Ullmann, one of Bergman’s leading actresses, who lived with him, had a daughter with him and remained a close friend for years. The book is a close reading of the Bergman oeuvre by a Roman Catholic priest who teaches philosophy at St. John’s University in Queens.
Father Lauder’s book makes clear the intellectual grounds for his own philosophical and Christian convictions. But in no way does it try to evade the trajectory in the director’s films from a concern with God to a humanism focused exclusively on human love and on art as the only stays against death.
The book was written not for believers or nonbelievers or, for that matter, cinéastes, but simply for anyone interested in the “big questions,” as dramatized by the extraordinary talent that Father Lauder considers the unrivaled “spokesman-artist for the third quarter of the twentieth century.”
It was the unflinching seriousness of Bergman’s struggle with these questions — regardless of the answers he reached — that made him so important for the religiously inclined. This is especially so because his probing, unlike Antonioni’s, recognized the continuing power of the Christian and biblical heritage and the deep resonance of its words and images.
“Why can’t I kill God within me?” the medieval knight-hero asks Death in a crucial exchange in the 1957 movie “The Seventh Seal.” “Why does he live on in this painful and humiliating way even though I curse him and want to tear him out of my heart? Why in spite of everything is he a baffling reality that I can’t shake off? Do you hear me?”
“Yes, I hear you,” replies Death, who is disguised as a confessor and suggests the obvious explanation for God’s silence: “Perhaps no one is there.”
When the knight protests, “No one can live in the face of death, knowing that all is nothingness,” Death counters that “most people never reflect about either death or the futility of life.”
It is a full half-century since this stark scene appeared on the screen, on the far side of the cultural revolution initiated by the 1960s, when Bergman was himself easing aside (though never completely) his obsession with God and death. Films exploring the “big questions” continue to be made in the much-changed cultural climate but not so relentlessly by a single filmmaker, with a singular vision and a sensibility steeped in a religious tradition.
Searching for exceptions, one thinks of Krzysztof Kieslowski, who made “The Decalogue,” 10 wrenching television films based idiosyncratically on the Ten Commandments, and whose “Three Colors” trilogy earned several Academy Award nominations. Kieslowski died at age 54 in 1996.
Explorations of the “big questions,” at least in films from either side of the Atlantic, are now more apt to be single-shot efforts or to come guarded with irony or distanced as screwball comedies, thrillers or other genre forms. The religious legacies with which emerging artists grapple are now diverse, in contrast to Bergman’s almost archetypal childhood battle with an authoritarian pastor-father and his stern, repressive Christianity. But while the culture’s store of religious vocabulary, symbol and experience is much widened, what is held in common is much reduced.
It is right to see Bergman’s death, and Antonioni’s, too, as marking the end of an era. It would be wrong if a justifiable gratitude for its achievement or lament at its passing dulled the desire for a continuing conversation between faith and film.