Wild Strawberries (1957, Ingmar Bergman)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Dreams, they say, are the mind’s way of dealing with images that would be disturbing or incomprehensible without the kind of ghostly logic that ties them together in our unconscious. The philosophies and attitudes and ideologies that we have when we’re awake are often precisely the same thing. The warm and wonderful Wild Strawberries seeks to remind us that life is not all that different from a dream, that no philosophy, attitude or ideology can entirely bring it under our control. It can take a lifetime to accept this, even if one knows it at an early age. It has taken Victor Sjöström’s character in Wild Strawberries seventy-eight years to come to terms with it, with the supposed mistakes of his past.

Ingmar Bergman’s black & white films from the ’50s are among the most beautiful — and most evocative of the natural world — ever made. Either he had a dazzling visual expertise or Sweden is just a great-looking place, probably both. And like most of his work from this early period, Wild Strawberries is challenging, good-natured, sad, witty, moving and charming. Its story is deceptively simple: an aging, kindly but angst-ridden doctor in his late seventies is to be given an honorary degree; the film chronicles the drive to the college, his interactions with his passengers — his embittered but optimistic daughter-in-law and a triad of hyperactive young hitchhikers — and the inner demons that inevitably culminate when one is bestowed with any kind of a retrospective.

The great director Sjöström, who made this three years before his death, is astonishing as Isak. In the film, we are confronted with his dreams and with his world, and in a very clear sense they become ours. We learn as he does — or rather, we are reminded as he is — that a mistake, a quarrel, a regret, a perversion, a foot in the mouth are all valuable pieces of the dream. What’s most winning about the movie is its sheer vibrance; it’s such a vivid evocation of youth and spring — as Smiles of a Summer Night was for the eponymous season — that I felt the urge to open the windows. (How wonderful that I happened to see it after winter had ended.) Bergman presents everything with an eye for the dark subtleties, photographing his actors and scenery with reverence and an almost shameless sense of undiluted beauty. The film absolutely could not work in color; every gray detail is too much a part of its design.

The screenplay does a fine job of presenting Professor Isak as a likable, sympathetic character, the one with whom the audience identifies for the duration, while giving us glimpses of his more unseemly tendencies. Casual sexism and a general sense of elitism toward the young are suggested, but his defenses are gradually broken down (and perhaps not harmed at all by the witnessing of chauvinism on the part of someone else — a horrible man who berates his wife endlessly after they get into an accident with Isak’s car — as well as the irrevocably damaged heart of his mother, and most importantly the limitless potential of the young trio, two girls and a boy, who have deep arguments and even childish skuffles but still see one another as equals) until both are symbolically dismissed. His final message of change is perhaps not even really noticed by those surrounding him, but his decision and his new, smiling remembrance of a time that once haunted him suggests that, in all the randomness, he has seen the value.

He’s alive, and the ups and downs are all a part of it; any simpler view, any pessimistic idea of what life is — wanting to die, as with the character’s chip-off-the-old-block son earlier in the film — is bound to be suffocating. The sort of happiness Isak finds — born after years of resignation and cynicism — comes out of a certain acceptance of complexity. Some people geniunely have a gift for such self-possession; whether Bergman is one of them or not, Wild Strawberries proves beyond a doubt that he certainly knows how it feels to suddenly find comfort in existing. See this one, if you can, right before a good walk in warm weather.

[Slightly edited version of a review posted in 2006.]

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