For nearly 30 years, Bergman has towered over his compatriots -- and most other European directors -- in popularity and prestige. From 1955 until today, from "Smiles of a Summer Night" through "Autumn Sonata ," his pictures have been welcome visitors on United States screens. Along the way he has been nominated for half a dozen Oscars in the writing and directing categories and has won the Motion Picture Academy's Thalberg Award for "humanitarian" achievements.
This has been something of a bother to his countrymen. They seem proud of their local hero, to be sure. But his luminosity has obscured their lesser lights, and few have managed to crack the huge American market on his coattails. Foreign films are not a big business in the United States, where Hollywood still reigns. To date, there has been room for only one dark magician from the far North.
Now that may be changing.Bergman has two new films to show us this year, a documentary and a drama. But his colleagues are asserting themselves too. Three American cities are hosting a festival called "Scandinavia/New Films," assembled by film institutes from Denmark, Finland, and Sweden.
After extensive preview screenings, I must report that it's an uneven show, ranging from the good to the awful. Still, it performs a valuable service by showing a cross section of recent activity in several Nordic countries, including many works that are clearly uninfluenced by Bergmania.
The first question posed by such a show is: Why do we speak of Scandinavian films as a group? Are there real links between the movies of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and neighboring Iceland and Finland? Or does the connection go no deeper than geography?
I put this query to Jorn Donner, head of the Swedish Film Institute, and he seemed most eager to stress the differences between these countries, rather than the common grounds. According to Donner, a common theme of Nordic films used to be man against nature, civilization vs. bad weather. But that preoccupation has died down since the people largely conquered their environment. Now, according to the Donner view, filmmakers are more free than ever to explore the subtle divergencies, as well as the growing political and cultural similarities, among their several lands.
Looking at the films themselves, the biggest surprise of the Scandinavian series is its foray into Iceland. Far from knowing the quality of Icelandic cinema, most American critics haven't known there ism an Icelandic cinema. Yet the film industry has been active there since 1944, the same year Bergman began his career in Sweden.
Denmark is another underrepresented country where good work has been going on. And Finland shows up well in the series, particularly with Raven's Dance, by Markku Lehmuskallio. This is a radically unconventional work, centering on a family living in the wilderness. Norway brings less noteworthy offerings.
Perhaps predictably, the largest and most mixed assortment comes from Sweden. Marmalade Revolution is a boring and pretentious film, even if it was directed by Bergman's leading man, Erland Josephson, who borrows the gloom but not the glory of "Scenes From a Marriage" for this tedious study of conjugal discontent. Father to Be has charming moments in its tale of a young couple, directed by Lasse Hallstrom, but lapses into too many cute effects. Linus, by Vilgot Sjoman , has a savage energy, but makes no valuable point with its yarn about a boy caught up in a vicious political struggle. The Score, by Christer Dahl, is the strangest film in the festival, dealing with a violent young punk.
As for the great Bergman himself, he is represented on the program in two ways. Donner's documentary Three Scenes with Ingmar Bergman is about him, offering an intimate glimpse of the master as he candidly discusses himself and his work. And Bergman's own Faro 1979 is another documentary, dealing with the island where he lives and works part of the year. A muted study in somber textures and quiet atmospheres, it has mild rewards for the eye and the mind.
Meanwhile, outside the Scandinavian festival, Bergman's latest drama has been commercially released in the United States. Its title, From the Life of the Marionettes, has echoes from his earlier film "Hour of the Wolf," where puppets counterpointed the hero's artistic struggles by singing part of "The Magic Flute" on a tiny stage. But in the new movie, it is real people who are manipulated.
The plot focuses on a man who is obsessed with fear that he might kill his wife. Eventually violence does break forth and most of the movie is an investigation into the murky reasons for it. The very sleazy climax is a particularly nasty rape and murder.
After several artsy disappointments in the '60s and '70s, Bergman has been on the comeback trail lately, with more rigor and less self-indulgence in his past few pictures. Let's hope his latest fiction is just a momentary lapse into bad habits, and that the upward path will soon resume.