While these are not, for the most part my favorite Bergman films (my votes go to the later films like 'Cries and Whispers', 'Persona' ,'Fanny and Alexander', 'Scenes from a Marriage', etc.)
there's no questioning that these were among his most important and influential films, bringing a kind of somber and complex use of symbolism to a comparatively mass audience and
wrestling with the most basic and fundamental philosophical questions in a way few films of any popularity had done; Is there a God? Why are we here? Why is there good and evil?
Is there free will, or are we doomed to a predetermined fate? Is there room for hope?
If all this sounds like heavy going, it can be at times, but it also will stretch your brain in a way few works of art do. They also have some of the most stunning cinematography of all time.
And besides, "Smiles of a Summer Night" is a light romp of a comedy, off-setting the thick and thoughtful gloom of 'The Seventh Seal', 'Wild Strawberries' and 'The Virgin Spring'.
All these transfers are excellent, although the newer Criterion blu-ray of "The Seventh Seal" is a step up even from these first rate transfers. And the price for the set (as of 4/2012) is
quite good for 4 Criterion transfers.
My specific thoughts on the films;
The Virgin Spring (1959)
My favorite of the pre 1960 Bergman films, this has (once again) amazing photography by Sven Nykvest. It also boasts one of Max Von Sydow's most powerful performances - which
is saying a lot.
Set in a medieval world like 'The Seventh Seal', but here the questions of guilt, god, right and wrong are simpler and less symbolic, and to me ring truer and more emotional. Not that
the film doesn't have it's fair share of symbolism. This is still Bergman. But those symbolic gestures feel more a part of a larger story, instead of the point.
Some of the supporting performances aren't quite up to Von Sydow's and a couple of key moments felt a bit contrived, but this is a very tense, intense, disturbing and emotional
look at one family from another time dealing with issues that are still all too familiar. Indeed there's almost a feeling of horror film about it at moments, and it is, amazingly,
sighted as the uncredited basis for Wes Craven's 'The Last House on the Left'!
The Seventh Seal (1957)
I feel like a fool for not loving this classic examination of the existence (or lack thereof) of both God and the meaning of life more. I appreciate it, with it's stark, lovely photography,
attention to detail, marvelous performances, and sly dark sense of humor that balances the portentousness of the subject matter, and makes the film much easier to watch than my
high school film-class memories of it.
On the other hand, while I appreciate the film's importance in cinema history, and the bravery with which it tackles the biggest of issues in a head-on, intellectual way, I find it just
that - a very intellectual experience, devoid of much in the way of emotion. I also find some of the writing preachy and on the nose.
Yet, in the end, I admire what it accomplished in its time, and how well it holds up 55 years later. And seeing as I went from not liking it at all, to liking it quite a bit on my 2nd
viewing, I'm open to what a third seeing might bring.
Wild Strawberries (1957)
An old doctor (a magnificent performance by Victor Sjostrom) takes a car trip to receive an award for 50 years in medicine, accompanied by his daughter in law, and some
teenage hitchhikers they pick up. He is tormented by highly symbolic dreams (beautifully done), and by the realization he has kept himself at an emotional distance from
others and the world, and now his life is racing towards it's end.
Quite moving in spots, but somehow never ended up with as much power as I expected.
Two critics' notes made sense to me. One said that, for as great and transparent as Sjostrom's performance is, he is so sweet and likable a presence it's hard to reconcile
him with a man his daughter in law openly admits she doesn't like because of his cold nature. The other point - which could also be applied to 'The Seventh Seal' is that
the film seems less special today because the stylistic barriers it broke and the doors it opened (an almost totally subjective film, dream sequences of depth and meaning, etc)
have since become a familiar part of film grammar. But at the time, this was something new and brave. Another to re-see.
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)
A funny bedroom farce - the last thing one would think of the early Bergman doing. A bunch of upper class folk spend a weekend together at a country
house. Lots of bed hopping, betrayal, male macho posturing, and female manipulation ensues. Never for a second dull, but for me never quite rose to the
heights of Bergman's best works either.
Personally I found the Sondheim musical adaptation of this - 'A Little Night Music' - more moving and human. There's something a bit distanced and
controlling about Bergman's approach which limits our chance to empathize with these characters. I smiled a lot, but was left wanting something deeper.
Sort of a fun one-night-stand of a film.