My father, myself

Ingmar Bergman enlists son Daniel to direct his haunting memoir Sunday's Children

It should be no small irony to film buffs that 76-year-old filmmaker-author Ingmar Bergman, having directed and written 36 movies during his lifetime, is finally beginning to convey authentic, vital emotion in his work.

His most generous feature, Fanny and Alexander (1982), about the sumptuous excesses of his grandmother's family, was also his last as a director, leading critics to take a fresh look at Bergman's 40-years-plus reputation as the ultimate auteur of chilly, bloodless innovation. This persona would expand far beyond the realm of his disciples--even folks who've never seen a Bergman film know his name signifies the intense, the impenetrable, the perversely personal.

On the other hand, some of us who've logged many hours watching the legend's work are intrigued but deadened by the rigid formalism of his movies. Too frequently, he's like an exquisite illustrator who suffers from color-blindness--the shape and clarity of the images are startling in their originality, but almost desperately lacking in warmth. His camera makes bold strokes, but it tends to conceptualize behavior, leading to a clinical portrayal of relationships that overlooks the messy incongruities of human folly.

Although he officially retired from the director's chair 12 years ago, Bergman has kept busy penning novels and screenplays--most of which, by no accident, have focused on his childhood experiences, specifically those which revolve around his parents. This world-renowned artist who, by his own admission, has pretty much failed as a traditional father (with eight kids, four wives, and numerous lovers notched on his belt, he can probably count the number of satisfying relationships on one hand), now returns obsessively to the subject of family, and his observations have been stunning in their artless hunger--the hunger of a man who in his final years craves to understand and resolve the mystery of intimate ties.

A decade after Fanny and Alexander came Best Intentions, director Bille August's spacious, acrid interpretation of a Bergman screenplay about the courtship, marriage, and quarrelsome early years shared by Bergman's cold, violent preacher father and his mother, an educated woman from a cultured Swedish family who was never content with her husband's constant traveling or her own relocation to remote outposts that needed the word of the Lord but were far removed from her own standards of personal comfort. The film ended with Ingmar in her belly, and no satisfying resolution of the hostility in their marriage.

More or less a sequel to Best Intentions is Sunday's Children, a multi-layered, phantasmagoric look at one important summer in the life of eight-year-old Ingmar and his emotionally bottled-up dad.

This time out, Bergman's 32-year-old son Daniel directs his father's script. Both have sworn the elder stayed away from the film's shoot in 1993, but that's a meaningless pledge when dealing with material this confessional and incendiary. There's no way Daniel could have exorcised his father's monolithic influence and, for that matter, there's no reason why he should.

Sunday's Children is a deceptively simple investigation into the way kids use their parents' attitudes toward them to form their own opinions of the world. The fact that both Bergmans are happy to stop along the way for crowd-pleasing moments of humor, sadness, and even terror testifies to the new richness that resonates in the patriarch's seasoned vision.

The child Ingmar is played by a remarkable young Swedish actor named Henrik Linnros. His character, nicknamed "Pu," undergoes many trials both profound and absurd, but always Linnros simmers with wordless anger that allows us to reflect again and again on the creative mind we're watching develop. His signature exclamation is "What?!"--a half-hearted attempt to catch the last words spoken by his guardians and family members, who've usually just roused him from a reverie that, to them, seems like thick-headed stupor.

It's 1926, and Pu finds himself summering at a cottage in the Swedish forest with his parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and the many servants who eagerly attend the family not because they're wealthy--money was a constant source of worry--but because father Henrik (Thommy Berggren) is a pastor known all over Sweden for his passionatesermons.

But Henrik is an altogether different man when he deals with his family. His three children are terrified of his unpredictable mood swings, which often result in physical abuse, and his forthright wife Karin (Lena Endre) constantly tries to summon the courage to return with her children to a city life near the home of her privileged parents.

Pu sneaks through the house late at night and listens to their heated arguments. He must also contend with his older brother Dag (Jakob Leygraf), who teases the other boy with cruel ingenuity. Pu is constantly--and often comically--tortured by somebody or some thought, none more so than his conflicted views of Christianity, which surface in a series of powerfully cinematic hallucinations involving both scriptural quotations and a local ghost story about a watchmaker who kills himself after falling in love with the tiny woman inside a grandfather clock.

Death haunts the film, as in most of Bergman's work, but this time a gleefully scatological motif hectors us into realizing how much these poor confused creatures are anchored to their bodies, and thus their mortality. Pu is constantly leaving a scene to urinate; people spit on each other; flies buzz around a corpse waiting for its last rites in a country church; and in one of the most memorable sequences, Pu struggles with a noisy case of diarrhea just minutes before one of the Sunday services he's grown to loathe.

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