Summertime was shot exclusively in Venice. And for those who have been to Venice, the film is a rare treasure; an historical homage to a city once enamored by tourists, with very few cameras, and mostly well dressed Italians. Today the dress is more casual, and the deluge of international tourists milling around removes a part of this floating museum with every step.
For David Lean, it was his favorite film starring his favorite actress. In her autobiography, Me, Katherine Hepburn remarked, “they called me and said that David Lean was going to direct it. ‘Would I be…’ they didn’t need to finish that sentence.” Hepburn said she first lived on the island of Murano, where the famous Murano glass is made, not Venice proper with its maze of narrow streets and bridges. Together with her entourage, she quickly moved into an apartment near the Grand Canale, the major water route, opposite the famous Gritti hotel where David Lean camped. (She even had her own gondola.) One of the most sought after Venetian tourist items is of course Murano glass: “glass, glass and more glass,” according to the dialogue. Given that Venice footed the entire bill of $36,000 for the film, Summertime is seen as pure tourist promotion.
Summertime is about Jane Hudson (Hepburn), a middle-aged “fancy secretary” from Akron, Ohio who saves up for a three-week dream vacation in Venice. Arriving by train to Piazza Roma via the Orient Express, Paris-Venice, complete with a hand-wound 8-mm camera, she takes the vaporetto, the public water bus rather than a gondola or water taxi. An American couple on board happens to be staying at the same boarding house, Pensioni Fiorini on the Accademia water bus stop (the Peggy Guggenheim home is located here). Jane coyly indicates to the pensioni proprietress that she, like most girls under 50, is searching for something. On her first day out on the Piazza San Marco Jane meets a handsome middle aged man, Renato Di Rossi (Rossano Brazzi), an antique dealer, and enters into a romance which becomes all the more passionate because he is married although separated.
Lean had six shades of red goblets blown especially for the film. In one scene, Jane discovers Renato charged almost the same amount for 18th century glass as fresh imitations, a discovery that produces rage. It becomes quite clear that Jane is losing her rocker, displaying a passion that eclipses the bravura of Brazzi. She is hysterical, insisting people drink with her to quiet her loneliness, and has flash floods of intermittent tears. Hepburn actually had problems with Spencer Tracy and the film crew, despite the glass commercials, and she was considered an irritating obstacle to tourism.
Lean’s intention with the film was to capture a child at play: Jane’s awe of Venice and the excitement of new love. An Italian child becomes her escort, one that she at first rebukes — she is not that desperate, but she and Renato later play with wind up toys at a café. “You are like a hungry child that only wants beefsteak not ravioli. Please take the ravioli,” says Renato when she starts to question the affair. “I’m not that hungry,” says Jane. But Renato convinces her of the need for a Latin approach, “the ravioli approach” to love and sexuality. Her red goblets transform to a pair of sparkling red shoes, noticeably evocative of Dorothy’s ruby slippers, as fireworks fills the sky. The charm of Venice and typical Italian love songs give the film the aura of a melodrama, a woman’s weepie, but the storyline is too thin. The film also prods American and Italian stereotypes, such as the shock of promiscuous Italians to the more pristine Americans. (Keep in mind the film has a British director.) The travelogue veneer and the superficial story make Summertime a corny gem.
Hepburn claims Lean absorbed the city and had a photographic gift for conveying his impressions. Indeed, after every minute of dialogue a breathtaking view of the city is displayed, drawing inspiration from the play The Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents, which is made to fit his pictures.
In one memorable scene Hepburn falls into the Venetian canal, an action that would be repugnant today in the foul water, filled with industrial pollution from neighboring Maestre. Reportedly, the water temporarily blinded Katherine and today anyone who falls into the canal is advised to take antibiotics. Medieval Venice was built on pilings and dead bodies were dropped into the canal to rot. A foreshadowing of the duplicity of the canal occurs when Jane first sets eyes on a gondola floating by, a view tainted by the dumping of sewage from an apartment. It is the also the water that carries her first flower from Renato, a flower that never quite stays in her possession even as she pulls away from the city. “Please help me Renato,” she begs, “let me go.” She has grown up, and if she stays a second longer she will never go. Brazzi actually first interpreted his role as a gigolo, (“another girl will arrive tomorrow”), a portrayal Lean thought too grim.
In the UK, the film was called Summer Madness. It is a far more appropriate title.
From start to finish, The Visit is commanded by the presence of Ingrid Bergman. She was scorned by Hollywood for leaving her husband for an Italian director, and is here cast in a role that allows her to address the people that exiled her. As a young woman, Bergman was given virtuous roles that endeared her to the public, which was why her exile angered them. (Ernest Hemingway was prepared to take out a full-page ad in Hollywood Reporter in her defense.) Nevertheless, she had tired of superficial roles and was willing to accept low pay for challenging parts in Rossellini’s realist cinema, as in Stromboli, the first picture he invited her to make in 1949. Bergman received a standing ovation at the Academy Awards when she returned to accept an Oscar for Murder on the Orient Express, years after leaving Hollywood. Bergman’s role in The Visit is an irony, as she plays a woman who returns to face her past.
Bergman plays Karla Zachanassian, who as a young girl was beaten by her schoolmaster. Her father was a hopeless alcoholic and her mother the subject of town gossip. At the age of seventeen, she falls in love with Serge Miller, the local shopkeeper, and eventually becomes pregnant. He denies being the father when she files a paternity suit. Later she loses the child and is forced to leave town. She moves to Trieste, and because of her disgrace is forced to survive through prostitution.
Two decades later she returns, extremely wealthy and with a desire for vengeance from the people of the mythical Pan European village. (It is claimed that here Lord Byron wrote his poetry and Brahms composed his music.) She brings a lawyer and two witnesses who confess Serge bribed them years ago to testify that Karla had slept with them, casting serious doubt on her paternity suit.
Karla claims that with this deceit her spirit died, and offers two million dollars, one for the township and one to be divided among the citizens of the village upon the execution of Serge, Karla’s one condition for payment.
It is triumphant for Karla to witness how morals can be discarded for a price. The townsfolk and elected officials that ran a seventeen-year-old girl out of town equally turn against Serge, who says he was only human, asking forgiveness and understanding. As Karla dines in her apartment over the courtyard adjacent to his shop, she watches the town transform from self-righteous indignation over killing a man in vengeance to a demonstration that everything, even human life, is a commodity that can be bought. As in Casablanca, “human life is very cheap.” Yet, she cannot take comfort in the complicity of the townsfolk.
Karla’s secretary is a young woman named Anya, who might be the same age as her dead child, and who perhaps acts as careless as she had when she was young. Karla counsels her in an effort to prevent the same mistake, bidding Anya to leave the married man she is with and offering to take her on the road after her “visit.” This is perhaps Karla’s most valuable salvation.
Austrian Bernhard Wicki directed The Visit, a writer as well as actor (Wicki played Doctor Ulmer in Paris, Texas). His film, an international co-production made in Italy at Cinettà, is embellished with well-constructed scenes, excellent camerawork, and outstanding performances, such as when Karla momentarily rekindles her love for Serge. The scene is shot at sunset on a dock with a delicate light hitting the two actors in an embrace in close-up. Karla marvels at how his hair was so black when he was young, how their whole life was ahead of them. For a moment, she loses herself in the past in a wild and passionate moment only to tragically discover Serge has grayed, recalling the life she was forced into. As she comes to her senses, there is an abrupt end to the lyrical scene.
Ingrid Bergman, at forty-nine, was at the peak of her career in this film, and is powerful and dynamic as Karla. She remarked in letters housed at the “Ingrid Bergman Archives” at Wesleyan College that her mature roles were more interesting than in her earlier (and more renowned) roles, such as in Casablanca. The choice of a property like The Visit demonstrates how well she lived out her conviction to evolve and transform as an actor.
Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, filmed on Fårö (Sheep Island) where the Swedish octogenarian’s summer home is located, is enigmatic and pulsating. Even after multiple viewings it is persistently compelling, primarily because of its contemplative thematic structure, partially devoid of language that allows the spectator to inscribe meaning. Bergman, in a recent interview and screening of Persona on Swedish Television, said he was weary of all the interpretations. He also revealed that in the beginning shooting the film was extremely problematic.
Persona, the third joint venture between Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist, is renowned for its poignant use of close-ups. In the making of Fanny and Alexander, Bergman admits they had ongoing differences on how to move the camera. A tightly constructed mise-en-scene allowed minute control of rhythm and acting in his later films, in which Nykvist kept the camera still. This style was well suited to the director whose strongest suit is the theater.
Persona begins with a montage — what Bergman calls “dream imagery”: The notable rattle of a film projector and illuminated filmstrip moving through its machinery alerts the spectator to the art instrument of filmmaking. (Bergman as a child lived close to a movie theater called ‘Slottsbiograf’ [‘Castle Cinema’], located below the castle where Queen Christina planned her abdication in the 16th century.) There his love of film was cultivated and some of his favorite images are to be found in this montage. A caricature of an erect penis for one eighth of a second, an image typically found in books on ancient Greece, was cut by Swedish censors. (Bergman’s excitement for its reintroduction on the recent Swedish Television broadcast made the old master look pathetically immature.) Other sequences include actors brandishing devils and skeleton suits frightening a sleeping man in pajamas from a silent film. An old cartoon is projected upside down, momentarily caught in the sprocket holes. A spider stretching its deadly appendages, gutted sheep, and a nail hammered into a hand are other, more disturbing images.
A shot of a Swedish forest introduces clips of aging faces and feet, appended with the sound of water from a tap. The telephone rings and a boy lying on a bed covered by a white sheet sits up, puts on his glasses and reads Vår Tids Hjältar (Heroes of our Time) by Sven Ulric Palme. He stretches his hand towards the projection of a woman’s face (Bibi Andersson). As the credits roll, a sequence of a self-immolating monk is shown, followed by the faces of Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann and Jörgen Lindström, the young boy. It is no accident that the images from the montage sequence precede the film and are later revealed visually or metaphorically; Persona is a meditation on martyrdom, heroics, fear, and sacrifice in personal relationship.
Persona is the story of a meeting between an artist (Liv Ullmann) and a nurse (Bibi Andersson). Elisabet Vogler is an actress who, during a theatrical performance of Electra, is suddenly unable to deliver her lines. She excuses herself for being “full of laughter.” This episode sends her into “an hysterical reaction” where she refuses to speak. Elisabet is admitted into the psychiatric ward of a Swedish hospital following three months of self-imposed silence (laced with laughter along with some humming). The psychiatrist brilliantly played by the late Margaretha Crook suggests that nurse Alma travel with Elisabet to her country house and dialogue with the actress for her rehabilitation. She believes that the actress is trying to seal herself hermetically from the world by refusing to speak and requires personal assistance in a natural setting. The stark austerity of the hospital room (a studio of the summer house at Fårö) with only a hospital bed on wheels, a night table, and TV might make anyone come unglued. The invitation is certainly a privileged one that not all Swedes can expect for convalescence. Bergman recalled that Persona was written following convalescence from an inflammatory illness that among other symptoms left him partially paralyzed in one arm.
Before the journey, Elisabet witnesses on her television news footage of the self-immolation of a monk protesting the Vietnam War. Bergman admits this was his first overt usage of politics in his films. Curiously, the footage in English with an American commentator and no subtitles goes against the practice of Swedish Television that must provide Swedish translation to all previously recorded broadcasts.
Bergman, in voice-over, announces how Elisabet and Alma go off to the doctor’s summerhouse. The convalescence on Fårö takes several twists demonstrating how the symbiosis in caretaking is precarious where the roles can suddenly reverse. Alma uses the silence to relate her experiences, flattered by a serious actress taking her to heart. She even envisions Elisabet coming to her bed at night in a homoerotic dream that is timelessly potent. 1
Eventually, Elisabet sends off Alma with an unsealed envelope to town. Considering it her medical duty to read it, Alma is distressed to find that she is under the microscope of Elisabet and is outraged. Her tale of an orgy with teenagers that led to her pregnancy is first received with empathy and later is patronized by the worldly actress who confides in the letter to her husband that Alma may be infatuated with her. The roles reverse and Alma zeroes in on Elisabet with the acumen of a medical professional. Bergman is didactic with the revelation that neither Alma’s aborted child nor Elisabet’s abandoned boy was wanted. The manner in which Alma confronts her and describes how she probably perceives her boy could be in part a description of her own aborted fetus.
Alma is also visited at night by Elisabet’s husband, less memorable than the dream of the elegant actress flowing into her room with a long white nightgown. She denies being Elisabet to Mr. Vogler but later assumes her identity, perfunctorily exclaiming she is satisfied with their life together. However, by day, Elisabet is no more eager to return to her life with her husband and boy than the day she lost her ability to speak. This seems to send her further into “hysteria.” The discovered letter sets off a chain of events where Alma confronts Elisabet and brings up her neglected little boy that needs attention. During one scene Elisabet examines a photo of a boy being held at gunpoint by Nazi soldiers and looks away with horror.
For Elisabet and Alma alike, the introspection is overwhelmingly painful where shame and tumult are shared and mirrored. In one scene, Alma questions Elisabet, her face shown in close-up, and later the same dialogue is used with Alma in close-up. There are no easy answers to why the two are precariously balanced in complicity, their faces forming an incongruous whole after this scene. There is perhaps something for each of us to project into this unbalance, but Bergman, as in so many other films, believes that failed motherhood contributes to hysteria and that woman is ultimately and inextricably linked to her biology. In the end, we see Alma in her nurse’s uniform coming into the room to help Elisabet. Are they back again in the hospital or did they ever leave?
1 – The scene where Elisabet stokes the hair of Alma is reminiscent of a classic scene from Maya Deren’s At Land where a woman strokes the hair of two women, a sequence which was determined homoerotic by The New Republic film critic Manny Farber.
The Seventh Seal is, in real time, a thirty-minute reprieve from the “apocalypse.” This is symbolized by the Black plague of the Middle Ages during the 13th century, a disease that spread between victims at eight kilometers a day. The Christian clergy randomly blamed people for its spread, in one case burning a young woman of fourteen at the stake. For Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, the film served as an allegory to the cold war of the 50s and the threat of nuclear warfare. Because the rapid advancement of the plague is abundantly featured in the film, the thirty-minute reprieve becomes an evolutionary and meditative journey.
Fourteen years after a Holy Crusade, Antonius Block returns to the south of Sweden. At that time it encompassed Denmark with the festival of saints at Helsingör and Roskilde as geographical references in the film. The most famous scene of The Seventh Seal opens upon Block at the eastern coast of Sweden. Death suddenly appears, covered in a black cloak from head to toe:
“Who are you”, asks Block.
“I am Death,” the figure replies.
“Have you come to get me?”
“Wait a minute.”
“Everyone says that.”
“But I don’t grant any reprieves.”
“You play chess don’t you? I’ve seen it in paintings and heard it in songs.”
The game begins with moves on board, which serve as plot changes. A field trip to a church with frescos illustrates the story of the plague as a death ritual. The thirty-minute reprieve Block requests is for him to experience one meaningful deed before he dies. He tries to trick and is tricked by Death, who poses as a confessor at one point while Block reveals his game plan.
Block’s quest is for “vetskap” (knowledge), but he is also aware of his corporeality. At one point he holds up his arm exclaiming, “this is my hand,” as in the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion when the liturgy intones “this is the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” The knight meets a circus family: Jof, Mia, and their little two-year-old son Mikael. Jof predicts that Mikael will one day be able to suspend a ball in mid air, such supernatural powers providing allusions to Jesus and his parents, Mary and Joseph. It is Jof, however, who appears to have mystical powers — his visions indeed serve to save his family from death. Jof sees not only the Virgin Mary but his death, his family’s, and that of others.
Bergman’s films often depict the artist as an outcast and at one point in The Seventh Seal Jof is asked to dance as a bear, awaking superstitions of the people at an inn who need a scapegoat for the plague. Such a mime evokes the medieval custom of sacrificing a bear for atonement. Likewise, processions led by clergy carry not only witches for burning but a parade of flagellates paying for their sins.
The Seventh Seal is not only a medieval drama play. Bergman also manages to instill his film with references to his philosophy on women, elsewhere seen in Monica, The Story of a Bad Girl, Persona, and Cries and Whispers.
At one point an actor from the circus is seduced by Lisa, the wife of blacksmith Plog. They escape into the forest and are later discovered by Plog and Blocks squire, Jöns. The forest is feared for bears, wolves and ghosts but primarily Death, symbolized by thunderstorm, lightning, and rain. Jöns and Plog converse about how Lisa should be killed, as all women, for their deception, harking back to the garden of Eden. “Lust is one thing,” says Jöns. He tells a woman he “saves from rape” that he is tired of “that kind of love.” Plog and Lisa are however reunited and cry out that the actor should be killed, shifting the burden to the artist as outcast. Death, like the church, has a thing to say about the adulterer, who fells a tree the actor has scurried up, leaving a squirrel to sniff at the fresh cut of its roots.
Upon meeting the young girl condemned to death, Block cannot help but ask why. He means to interfere and prevent the fate, but supposes she is half dead already. There is plenty of time before, so it is curious that he waits until the last minute. (Was that not a good deed?)
Convinced of “tomheten” (emptiness) Block wanders away to the circus family where he has a bowl of “smultron” (wild strawberries, offered to him by Bibbi Andersson as in Wild Strawberries, made the same year). The symbolism of the meal points to one other existential truism, that for the moment daily bread is enough.
When the travelers make their way to Block’s home they are met by his wife, who prepares the last supper. Death is welcomed into their home and we later together with Jof see them led by Death brandishing a scythe in a dance on the hill. The Seventh Seal is riddled with conventional metaphors about death and women, and the artist as outcast, a fate Bergman himself would experience two decades later when accused of not paying his taxes.