A film festival unlike any other, Bergmanvecken (or Bergman Week), now in its fifth year in operation and its first incarnation since the death of the man at its center last July, is a celebration of location as much as film. For Swedish cinema, Ingmar Bergman was always a one-man-show, its industry glue, its irreproachable standard-bearer, its looming demon genius — and he has been resented throughout the industry for the past half-century nearly as often as he’s been embraced. Not so on Faro, the island located on the northern tip of Gotland, where he made his permanent residence for decades even as he lived and worked in Stockholm during the off seasons.
Viewed by his fellow islanders less as an irascible titan of cinema than as a peaceful fixture and neighbor, Bergman might have brought renown and a new economic dimension to an area previously known mainly for its fishing and agriculture, yet by keeping his beloved natural paradise (marked on the west side by barren, stony shores and arresting rock formations, and on the east its lush, green pastures, all surrounded by the glistening expanses of the Baltic Sea) a private, inner sanctum of artistic inspiration, the superstar filmmaker treated Faro’s native villagers with the utmost respect.
They have returned the favor by greeting an annual festival in his honor with a surprising enthusiasm. Attendance at the events for Bergman Week, which vary among screenings, panels, lectures, and even bus tours (of all the local spots where Bergman shot his handful of Faro productions, including “Through a Glass Darkly,” “Shame,” “The Passion of Anna,” and his masterpiece, “Persona“), seemed appealingly divided between local islanders and out-of-towners. For the Bergman aficionado, the chance to see “The Seventh Seal” and the magnificent, if underseen, early film “Summer Interlude” (the former introduced by Margarethe von Trotta, the latter by Jan Troell, who each also presented a film of their own in the festival) while surrounded by the craggy, pebbled beaches and verdant pine forests that so moved the filmmaker was a truly rare delight; for those who lived on Faro, this year’s festival was an especially bittersweet chance to say farewell to a friend.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the screenings for the documentaries Bergman made about the island and dedicated to its inhabitants, “Faro Document, 1969” and “Faro Document, 1979.” Not often screened, the films comprise a rich testament to not only a specific time and place but also to the ebb and flow of any natural environment: how people cultivate land, both literally and perhaps spiritually. Though Bergman’s unifying conceit (to update interviews with local denizens ten years later to see where life’s taken them, if anywhere at all) would seem to place his work in the same camp as Michael Apted‘s “Up” trilogy (and he intended to make another in 1989, but never did), Bergman’s approach as a documentarian is more in line with the best of Louis Malle‘s nonfiction (“God’s Country,” “Humain, trop humain“), surveying spaces with a lack of overt editorializing, letting the people speak for themselves or, more frequently, just go about their business, which Bergman captures with an intense focus — farmers slaughtering pigs in harrowing real time; neighbors working together to thatch a roof; and, in my favorite moment, a lonely fisherman cleaning, cooking, and eating his freshly caught dinner: simple, effortless, wordless. As we watched it in the Sudersandsbion, an old, converted barn in which Bergman had often watched dailies, “Faro Document, 1979” tickled an appreciative, engaged audience, many of whom were seeing themselves or their elders magically reborn again onscreen.
In addition to the “Faro Documents” and “Summer Interlude,” this edition of Bergman Week was chock full of films that are not readily available in the U.S., including 1952’s “Waiting Women” and 1971’s Elliot Gould-starring “The Touch.” Yet even amidst these somewhat unexpected offerings the closing-night screening of the 1921 silent masterpiece “The Phantom Carriage,” by Swedish director Victor Sjostrom (the poignant, aged star of Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” some thirty-five years later) was perhaps the most delightful surprise; for their presentation of the film, the festival commissioned a robust, immensely moving score by composer Matti Bye, performed live with a five-person orchestra.
The music was by turns frightening, tremulous, and tender, the perfect accompaniment to Sjostrom’s tale of the redemption of a wicked man at the very moment of his death, which Bergman often identified as his favorite film, a print of which he owned and would screen annually. With its cursed man trying to bargain with a hooded death figure, scythe eternally in hand, and with its narrative journey through a man’s past misdeeds, “The Phantom Carriage” clearly anticipated “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries,” and ended the festival on a note both somber and elating. Sjostrom’s film tells us death is not the end. And indeed Bergman’s art lives on, and it never has seemed more lovely and full-spirited to me than when nestled among the wooded hills and sun-dappled farms of the beloved island where his body now lays.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]