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The Rite [DVD] 
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Ingmar Bergman's drama-about-a-drama, originally made for Swedish television in 1969, asks questions about obscenity, censorship and the role of the artist. Three actors from a theatre troupe that has had its latest production, 'The Rite', banned after being charged with obscenity are each interrogated privately by a provincial magistrate. The trio are incestuously involved: Thea (Ingrid Thulin) is married to Hans (Gunnar Björnstrand) but is having an affair with Sebastian (Anders Ek), who killed her former husband in a crime of passion. The judge, playing on the insecurities and vanity of the three actors, brings to light their deepest, darkest secrets. Bergman deliberately does not reveal the obscene nature of the troupe's production, leaving the viewer to imagine for themselves what they consider obscenity to be.
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Top customer reviews
There are various accusations highlighted and all become, or are, squirmingly intrusive, with many very personal subjects being quite explicitly examined. Add a documentary feeling use of static interview room/single set location and with uncomfortably close close-ups, in a rather unflattering greyish sort of black and white.
Considering these 'crimes' border on the uglier emotions and typically Bergman, the dialogue crackles with poetic starkness and honesty, then the Mary Whitehouse brigade of the day would have had a field day. My reference to this, is because The Rite was a drama made for Swedish TV, directed by Bergman and featuring some typically gritty and honest acting. I bet that the TV audience there would have been receptive and revelled in its clever psychotherapy and fascinating insight into human persona. Us Brits would only have seen the 'grubby' bits and blown them out of all proportion.
Whilst this 72minute drama looks odd and dated now - and the few other reviews around almost dismiss this work accordingly, it now comes out as a fascinating but intense montage of human condition and behaviour.
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I stumbled upon it on You Tube, with delayed English Subtitles; this UK version is superbly synched up and looks incredible.
With nothing but close-ups to make use of the small-screen palette, the story morphs from that of a realist conflict between
a censor and a theatre troupe to that of symbolic--and then actual--death. The reversal in the final scenes is simply stunning.
Instead of the issues of identity in Persona, Bergman goes after ideas about power and art, reaching back to Greek theatre
to produce a scary, intense, and ultimately devastating portrait of petty bureaucracy and the fragility of human life.
Like his other extraordinary film The Magician but distilled down to five characters and a few sets, The Ritual is
Bergman's No Exit: an obliterating examination of existentialism in action.
In an unnamed European country, a judge (Erik Hell) summons a traveling troupe of three actors to investigate whether the play they have brought to his community is pornographic. Two of the actors are overtly neurotic. Sebastian Fisher (Anders Ek) is prone to starting fires and afflicted by ill health. he is also glum and insulting. Thea Winkelmann (Ingrid Thulin) is wracked with existential anxiety, overly sensitive and feels suffocated by her surroundings. Hans Winkelmann (Gunnar Björkstrand) is the level-headed one who keeps the troupe together.
By the early mid-1960s Bergman had moved on from religious anxiety to an interest in human relationships and psychology. The three actors can be seen as different aspects of a single personality, and Bergman's comments on this in Images: My Life in Film are worth reading. More mysterious is their relationship to the judge, which dominates in the shocking last scene which I won't spoil here. The connection of drama to religious ritual in Ancient Greek is a theme. There is also some daring sexuality here: it's hard to imagine some of the scenes even in a theatrical release of the time, let alone television broadcast.
Why is this not among Bergman's best? Although the director had his trusted cameraman Sven Nykvist on hand, the cinematography nothing special: the elegantly planned long takes of other films are missing here, and some shots break off haphazardly. The concerns of the film are too repetitive after THE SILENCE, PERSONA and HOUR OF THE WOLF, and neither Hell nor Ek are pleasant to watch. Still, Björnstrand and Thulin give an engaging performance. Furthermore, I'm left wondering if there is an homage here to Bergman's colleague Jean-Luc Godard, as the film is divided into a series of tableaux (like Godard's VIVRE SA VIE) and Thulin wears a distinctly Anna Karina-like wig.
So far this film has been given an English-subtitled release only by the UK company Tartan. There are no extras here, unfortunately, just trailers for other Bergman films that the company has released on DVD.
Most Bergman films are rigorously unafraid to be theatrical, stagebound, because the theatre can act as both a metaphor and provide the atmosphere of claustrophobic interiority that comprises Bergman's view of the world, and the characters who suffer within it. 'The Rite' takes Bergman's theatricality to extremes. The film, with its austere, monochrome mise-en-scene, is divided into scenes, each one comprising theatrical exchanges between two people, which follow a very theatrical arc of conflict, power struggles and revelation. These dialogues are framed by two stand-offs between the civil servant and the group.
As this latter conflict suggests, there is slippage in the dialogues between individuals and their professional lives, with antagonists attempting to pierce the impregnability of the latter, by preying on the weakness of the former, often linked to failure in the body (excessive sweat, impotence etc.). so, for example, while Sebastian is powerless against the Judge as a civil servant, his powers to enforce the law and control his behaviour, he can overpower him as a man with physical problems, spiritual absences and feelings of inferiority.
In this way, the deliberate theatricality expresses a sustained exercise in role play. It allegorises an age-old conflict between Art and Society, about the limits set by one on the other; on the aesthetic imperatives of one to transgress those limits in order to reveal the truth to the other; on the irony that those who are Artists, who seek to comment on society, or talk to the people who live in it, must themselves live in society, and obey its rules. Conversely, Society and its institutions are an Art, a creation, a particular, formal interpretation of human motivation.
The film is called 'The Rite', which is the name of the 'number' (as the subtitles endearingly have it) under investigation. The 'rite' has religious overtones, reminding us (as Bergman did in 'The Seventh Seal') that theatre developed out of religious rites. The theatre trio are known as 'Les Riens' (the Nothings), and the rite they are performing might be a funeral rite, the rite for a man about to die. The rite is the Judge's way of coming to terms with his death, his life, his body, his love life, his lack of family and children, his unquestioning devotion to work. We only learn about him in terms of the others, or in reaction to them. The artists are merely priests presiding over his death, forcing him to confess, returning him to the primeval truth of Death, a force all the legal apparatus in the world cannot unsay. Unlike Antonius Block, who tried to evade Death by questioning it, the Judge seeks to come to terms with it, reconcile himself to it, and to life, for good and ill. And the only way you can do this is through Art, which is bigger, more powerful, more mysterious, and, ultimately, more frightening, than its votaries.
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