Do you remember the story of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams dying on the same day: July 4, 1826? For film enthusiasts, a similar kind of cultural synchronicity was evoked by the deaths of Antonioni and Bergman, within hours of each other, on July 30, 2007. Both of these filmmakers contributed mightily to their chosen art form. Both were recognized for bringing a new voice to the medium. Both drew audiences to “art house” cinemas through the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s, to view films that opened up new possibilities for popular philosophical inquiry. Both seemed to capture the cries and alienation of their time.
My own brushes with these masters helped to define my understanding of the power of film. Antonioni is known for advances in film grammar and visual style, and for an intuitive ability to layer images for metaphorical effect. As I watched Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) for the first time, I realized that filmmakers can do with images what great literary artists have done with words. I also recognized the artist’s capacity to unveil the exhausted and failed search of modern man and woman for connection and meaning. Antonioni challenges viewers to look beyond suave exteriors to the mysterious voids or frightening questions beneath.
Bergman, more theatrically based, has been more accessible, yet just as weighty, to me. As a child, I was excited by The Seventh Seal (1957) with its allegorical force as well as its bow to youthful love. Later, it was Winter Light (1962) that captured me. A Protestant counterpart to Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), it depicts a Lutheran pastor’s crisis of faith in the face of human indifference and God’s silence. I have been puzzled by the despair some commentators take away from it. To me it offers a profound affirmation of faith and hope amidst human frailty.
David Mamet, the playwright, once remarked that after attending an all-day Bergman Festival he “did not sleep for years.” Despite the unsettling nature of much of their work, both Bergman and Antonioni provoke self-exploration and insight. These artists, if not always seeing beyond, saw within the anxieties of their time. They did so in a way that allowed audiences to mine their own experience. Their work will continue to invite others into a discussion of life’s greatest questions.