Antonioni, Bergman: In Death, Their Similar Paths Crossed

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By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 5, 2007

On Monday, as if to blow our minds one last time, they expired in tandem.

Bergman and Antonioni, dead the same day. Imagine how they'd dramatize it on film -- a brief double bill, each half looking vastly different but breathing a similar ache:

SCENE 1. Antonioni, on camera, doing something routine. Putting on his shoes, maybe, or walking down the street, healthy and handsome and assured. We follow him until the camera becomes interested, for a moment, in something else. It pans. Our gaze wanders with it. When it returns, he's gone. He just . . . disappears. Did we lose track of him? Was he even there in the first place?

SCENE 2. Death, wearing a hooded cloak, slides a rook all the way across life's chessboard. Bergman's weary eyes flutter, but we are spared the rattle and shown a memory instead: Bergman, younger, in black and white, walking alone by the sea. Then a voice-over, perhaps borrowed from the end of "Cries and Whispers." It anticipates great pain but reaches for validation, for the checkmate: "Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection."

Ingmar Bergman went first. Sweden sighed, critics scribbled appreciations, the film blogosphere flared with grief. Michelangelo Antonioni went hours later, and cinephiles spent the week recovering from a bad case of whiplash.

Bergman the Magician, the Prophet, the Remote.

Antonioni the Poet, the Transient, the Alienated.

Dare we tack on "the Pretentious" to these catalogues?

Their images are seared onto the pages of "Intro to Film Studies" textbooks, flattened and boxed into Criterion Collection DVDs, tossed pithily into euphemisms to describe family holidays ("Christmas at mom's was like something out of Bergman").

They died the same day, and we ask the very questions with which we greet the end of their movies: What does it mean ? Does it mean anything ? Or is it just life, and death, and nothing more?

That was one thing they had in common: more questions than answers. Their rhythms were different: Bergman worshiped the close-up, Antonioni the continuous take. Their writing was different: Bergman favored monologues, Antonioni relished silence. One was inspired by Strindberg, the other by Camus. There is no way to mistake one man's film for the other's.

Antonioni was suffocated by his own tedium, Bergman wrote in his autobiography.

Bergman was solely concerned with the question of God, Antonioni told the London Telegraph, whereas he himself was uninterested in unraveling spiritual mystery.

But common among their films was genuine pain stemming from existential sadness. Bergman wielded his camera like a dagger, Antonioni guided his like a scalpel. The hurt came at once with a jab from the Swede. It came gradually through precise incisions from the Italian. Bergman's "Cries and Whispers," with its horrifying scene of self-mutilation, fades often to red instead of black and we understand how right this is. Antonioni's "Blowup," with its Rubik's Cube narrative, has a way of surgically disarming our best attempts to solve it. Instead of finding resolution in the final scene, we unfurl in anxious ribbons.

Bergman and Antonioni found a shared home in art house theaters, where the curious and the masochistic went to be attacked by movies. This is what binds the directors together: bleakness, pain and isolation. Antonioni and Bergman were men of distance. They photographed the chasms between us.

Do Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson play separate women in Bergman's "Persona," or are they really two parts of a single entity? Consider Antonioni's "La Notte" an unlikely but illuminating companion piece; Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni are united in marriage and isolated by death, two halves never meant to be whole. Ingrid Bergman and Ullmann sit on the same piano bench as mother and daughter in Bergman's "Autumn Sonata," yet they might as well be invisible to each other. In Bergman's films, people writhe in the shadow of doubts both earthly and spiritual. In Antonioni's, they simply disconnect from reality and loose the bounds of celluloid. Lea Massari vanishes on an island in "L'Avventura," Vanessa Redgrave evaporates in a flock of pedestrians midway through "Blowup," and Jack Nicholson is simply gone as the camera makes its slow turn in the last shot of "The Passenger." We are alone.

The same kind of thing happened last Monday. We recovered from the small trauma of Bergman's death -- welcomed in solitude on his island off the coast of Sweden -- only to look around and realize Antonioni, too, had disappeared from our landscape.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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