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WILD STRAWBERRIES

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Victor Sjostrom, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Julian Kindahl, Folke Sundquist, Max von Sydow
Director:  Ingmar Bergman
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  91 Minutes
Release Date:  February 12, 2002

“A doctor’s first task is to ask for forgiveness.”

Film ****

Wild Strawberries is simply as good as filmmaking can get.

Personally, I find it to be the piece de resistance of Ingmar Bergman’s entire body of work.  Though The Seventh Seal may remain his most famous with its unforgettable imagery and brooding contemplation of life, death and the existence of God, Wild Strawberries takes a more simple, direct approach to storytelling, yet manages to cover the same existential ground in more quiet, thoughtful and less intimidating ways.

It tells the tale of an elderly doctor, Isak Borg (the stunning and unforgettable Sjostrom).  He has lived his life somewhat devoid of emotional attachment by choice…in fact, when we first see him on screen, we’re not getting a very good look at him (but that changes quickly), and admits that some of his choices has brought him loneliness.  He is on the eve of receiving a prestigious honorary award for his life’s achievements.

But that night, he has a strange dream (which I’ll discuss in detail further down).  Awakening the next morning, he has a complete change of plans.  Instead of flying the 400 or so miles to his destination, he’ll take the car on what will be both a literal and figurative journey through his youth and life.  Accompanying him to start out will be his lovely daughter-in-law Marianne (Thulin).

As the journey begins, we start to learn about Borg through his conversations with Marianne, starting with his relationship with his son, Evald (Bjornstrand).  “He respects me,” Borg intones.  “True,” agrees Marianne, “but he also hates you.”  Why?  The pages of Borg’s life are just beginning to turn before our eyes.

The first stop along the way is his family’s old summer home.  Before his reminiscing eyes, the old house comes to life again, with all the people from his youth.  As Woody Allen would later use in homage, Borg walks through his own memories, unable to take part in them, but seeing them unfold in front of them as though they were happening all over again.

We see his relationship with Sara (Andersson), or at least, a side he may never have really noticed before.  Though he was in love with her, she was being wooed aggressively by his brother (we later learn they married and had six children).  Borg is often in the sad, helpless position of having to listen in and learn what people really think of him.  He may have been a great professional success in the medical world, but like many great men, his personal life was not as successful.

Awakened from his daydream by a hip young girl, also named Sara (and also played by Andersson), Borg and Marianne pick her and her companions up as passengers in Borg’s gigantic, hearse-like car.  Both of her young men are in love with her.  One is studying to be a minister, the other is a man of science.  As one reviewer remarked, put them together, and you have a complete oxymoron.

The group continues on their journey, meeting up with a horrible bickering couple by accident, meeting a more pleasant couple at a gas station in the country who remember Borg’s early career days, stopping for Borg to visit his amazingly-still-alive mother, and finally arriving at their destination, but not before Borg’s sleep is interrupted by another strange dream.  This time, in a sterile, quite examining room, he finds himself stripped of the one aspect of his life he’s always counted on…his abilities as a doctor.

The journey from place to place is both physical and spiritual for Borg, and to a lesser extent, all of his passengers.  When the doctor arrives at his pompous ceremonial of honor, it is not the end for him.  It comes later, in his sleep, when he dreams peaceably about his past for the first time, and at long last has a look of contentment and ease on his face. 

The film is an absolute masterpiece of simple allegory and deep, probing truths, and one of the best character stories ever captured on celluloid.  Borg’s first dream, however, is a tour-de-force in its own right, and has been discussed and analyzed many times over.  It is a dream of death, but a bit different than you might expect.  Other directors would make such a dream as dark as possible, but Bergman takes the opposite approach, using a heavy, unrelenting glare and very little shadow to hide in.  The clocks have no hands, as time has no meaning.  A distant bell chimes over and over again…for whom does it toll?  The horse-drawn hearse snags itself on a lamppost before breaking free by laming itself.  The coffin ejects after the straining sound that could be baby cries, and indeed, resembles the act of birth in its jettison.  Borg sees himself in the coffin…traditionally, to see yourself in your dream equates to your own death, but here, the imagery is compounded.  It is what sets the doctor off on his long, winding journey through healing and reconciliation.

Every aspect of the film is masterful, from the casting to the impeccable script by Bergman, to one of the most beautiful uses of black and white photography ever captured on film.  Images are not as stark and demanding as in The Seventh Seal, but in their own ways, more powerful, because they settle into your mind and make you think about them long and hard after the movie ends. 

Borg’s trip to his ultimate professional honor goes through some of the more painful, emotional times of his youth, and call to mind his fears, his doubts, and his ability to confront the one great inevitable, death.  Yet the majesty of it all is that this is not a heavy handed or sad hearted picture.  It is ultimately the story of personal redemption and reconciliation, and one of the most positive movie going experiences I have ever enjoyed…positive because it doesn’t pluck an obligatory happy ending out of thin air, but because it works for and earns it truthfully and totally.

Video ****

Criterion scores again with another superb transfer and a nearly flawless presentation of near fifty year old film.  As mentioned, the black and white photography is expressive and perfectly created, and this glorious DVD captures it all with tremendous integrity, and hardly any lapses in terms of aging artifacts!  Blacks are deep and solid, whites are bright and pure, and every image is sharply rendered, with remarkable detail (just consider that opening shot of Isak Borg’s library!), with no grain or compression interference of any kind.  The normal spots, dust and scratches you might expect are all but vanquished here, leaving a clean, gorgeous and ultimately pleasurable movie watching experience that every film lover will be eternally grateful for.

Audio ***

The original mono Swedish soundtrack is remarkably good…most stretches of the film are quieter and more dialogue-driven, but there are moments of sudden and strong effects that give it dynamic range.  The track is relatively-noise free…only a few very minor instances are even noticeable, and hardly distracting.  All in all, a very worthwhile effort.

Features ***1/2

Film historian Peter Cowie, who recorded the excellent commentary track for Criterion’s release of The Seventh Seal, offers another terrific and informative one here.  His knowledge is extensive, combining both shot-specific comments with plenty of background information about the actors, the production, and Bergman’s life and how it related to what we see in the film…it’s an excellent listen for serious cinema buffs.  There is also a good 90 minute documentary Ingmar Bergman on Life and Work, featuring recent interviews with the aging but still lively director…an intimate and enjoyable portrait of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists.  There is also a stills gallery that includes behind-the-scenes-photos.  A good package all around.

Summary:

I watched this movie four times in three days before writing this review, just for the sheer pleasure of the experience.  Wild Strawberries has been rightly called a film that no serious lover of cinema can afford to miss, and that’s a sentiment I endorse whole heartedly.  Even for those who normally don’t watch foreign subtitled films, I would offer my highest recommendation to give in and give this movie a spin in your player.  You will never regret it.

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