There are so many Ingmar Bergman films I haven’t seen (and most all of them are considered essentials by cinephiles) that there will likely be a Bergman film on every one of my Blindspot lists for years to come. Last year it was The Virgin Spring; this year I opted for Wild Strawberries, which generally comes near the top of lists of greatest Bergman films but I’ve been avoiding because, really, “after living a life marked by coldness, an aging professor is forced to confront the emptiness of his existence” doesn’t sound like that interesting or compelling a story (that’s the IMDb description). But, of course, Bergman’s genius is in how he tells his stories and the depth of humanity he instills in them more than the plot details themselves.
The film is much more subtle than the description above suggests, with the professor’s coldness mostly demonstrated by his terse treatment of his long-time housekeeper and somewhat estranged daughter-in-law (and son, by extension). He’s bitter and unsympathetic without being necessarily outright cruel. The night before he’s to head off to accept an honorary degree, he has a surreal dream culminating in a vision of his own death, which sets him on a journey of memory the following day as he detours by places of childhood and youthful significance and interacts with the young people he finds there now.
Seeing one’s own death as an impetus for self-reflection might be a common trope, but Bergman keeps it feeling fresh both by the evocative strangeness of the dream (a precursor, perhaps, to the nightmarish weirdness of Persona) and the rather opaque interactions that follow. It’s clear that the resurrected memories of lost loves and family reunions, as well as his conversations with his daughter-in-law and the trio of young people affect the professor greatly, but it’s far from the pat lesson-learning that you’d likely find in an American film.
The professor is played by Swedish director Victor Sjostrom, best known for silent films like The Wind and The Phantom Carriage, and he’s pretty great, surrounded by Bergman stock figures like Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, and Ingrid Thulin. Some of them are in pretty small parts (like von Sydow), but they leave their mark on the film nonetheless. That plus the surprisingly surreal bits elevated the film far beyond what I expected. It didn’t quite reach the top of my Bergman list, which is still occupied by Persona and The Virgin Spring, but I’m definitely pleased to cross it off my Blind Spot list.