It Rains on Our Love (Bergman, 1946)

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The second feature from Ingmar Bergman may seem relatively unpolished and lacking the depth that would characterise his later work, but It Rains on Our Love (1946) is more than just a curiosity plucked from his back-catalogue. The earliest signs of a filmmaker able to align an audience with the plight of highly empathetic characters are on display, in this case two strangers who meet at a train station. Both Maggi (Barbro Kollberg) and David (Birger Malmsten) are down-on-their luck outsiders, heavily-laden with chequered pasts and with little but small change lining their pockets.

Maggi is won over by David’s charm but misery, in a sense, will bind them together. After a tryst in a hotel room that breaks the shackles of mounting frustration, they finally board a train to the country hoping to make a clean break. A rocky beginning awaits, in which a gleefully malicious old man threatens David with arrest, before they settle down in a home he keeps open for rent. However the road ahead is littered with obstructions blocking their progress towards a better life.

Though spliced with whimsical, comedic anecdotes centered on the town’s eccentric characters, the film generally takes a fairly bleak view of humanity. Regardless of the couple’s good intentions, every turn for the better is soon cancelled out by the poisonous suspicion or ill-will of those around them, especially the horrible wife of the man who employs David in his greenery. Her malicious response at the first sign of David’s distress when accepting bad news via a phone call, asking with malevolent glee, “what is it……..something tragic?” represents the nadir of scorn tossed like a bucket of cold water on his reformatory ways.

It Rains on Our Love can also be taken as a pessimistic, anti-authority film; a tirade against the misuse of power of those whose higher social standing affords them arrogance and contempt. These grim figures, portrayed as vampiric agents of faceless tormentors preying on the good intentions of David and Maggi are unrelenting and without conscience.

Conversely, our protagonists are far from saintly figures, with David’s life of crime and Maggi’s loose morals spelt out clearly early on. Yet both have made a pact with the past, to leave it behind and embrace a fresh beginning. Will their love be strong enough to overcome circumstance and human intervention? Or will their dreams tear apart at the seams once more? Malmsten and Kollberg are a great pairing. There’s a commendable earnestness in their portrayals of David and Maggi who are forever bracing for the worst with grim-set expressions which make the flickering moments of joy all the more convincing.

Bergman’s film holds up remarkably well, and though it’s difficult to reconcile this as emanating from the man associated with so many masterpieces of world cinema in the decades to come, there are glimpses of a serious director to keep an eye out for. Certainly the main theme – an acerbic probing of a man’s downfall and loss of faith in humanity – rings true, albeit with less psychological impact than Bergman would become notorious for. Then there’s the roving ‘narrator’, acting like an omniscient overseer mysteriously inserted into the story by Bergman as advocates for the beleaguered pair at crucial junctures. Another notable example is the montage of faces superimposed over the court documents as snippets of their testimony are presented to the jury. It’s a clever touch and seamlessly grafted onto the narrative; indication enough that this young director had the talent already to impart a story with something other than conventional methods.

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Shame (Bergman, 1968)

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Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 masterpiece is one of his finest achievements, probing the caustic, calcifying shame of war and, as if with a blunt instrument, the forces that irreversibly alter our moral perspective and the wavering identity of our own humanity.

On a small, remote island two former concert violinists, Jan (Max von Sydow) and Eva (Liv Ullmann) live in the lengthening shadow of a civil war that rages on across the waters. They exist simply, tending to their small farm, struggling desperately to make ends meet whilst combating tedium. Though they love one another, offhand, antagonistic remarks may be evidence of tiny fissures opening up in their relationship. In Jan, Eva perceives weakness and resistance to fully grasp the enormity of their situation. He would rather retreat and take solace in headaches that seem manufactured to divert attention from his more glaring masculine shortcomings.

The opening half hour is a mundane examination of the couple’s uneventful routine, which includes sojourns to the mainland to sell their modest range of crops. All this is meticulously established, belying the confusion to follow. When trouble arrives it seizes them with fear and uncertainty, upending the secluded domesticity that has cocooned them until now. Fighter planes roar by, explosions sound in the distance, coming ever closer, and Bergman devises a set-piece to rip these people from their stasis, tossing them into an open cauldron where morality becomes blurred and destruction reigns.

There are no cultural or political indicators or side-taking in Bergman’s screenplay; his focus remains universal, intent on exposing the human experience to its instinctive core, throwing ordinary people against an allusive brick wall to see how they cope on a deeper, psychological level.

Shot with typically invasive depths of perception by Bergman’s legendary collaborator and friend, Sven Nykvist, the film burns with the intensity of gripping, realistic sequences that chart the tumultuous first invasion of the island and later, the demoralising turn of events that has far more frightening implications. As with all Bergman films there are a host of indelible images that linger in the mind like banshee howls of agony, and Shame is no exception.

You simply can’t put a value on the contributions Ullmann has brought to Bergman’s body of work. Every performance of hers is textbook perfect and yet informed by a technique that contains little you could ever learn from an acting classroom. Her ethereal beauty is only part of the mystique that surrounds her like an aura. Her haunted, extraordinarily expressive face stunningly encapsulates the horror, fear, joy, and physical surrender of every scenario Bergman sets before her on a page. She may well be the greatest actress of any era, pointed moments of close-up all too often revealing her mesmerising power and the camera’s love for her, whether in silent contemplation or bringing one of Bergman’s brilliant monologues to life.

It must be said that von Sydow is just as sublime, integrating the descent of man into his nuanced portrayal of the traumatised Jan, a man pushed to the point of madness by a mass of complex, seething emotional responses: greed, jealousy, bitterness. Bergman’s vision of disintegrating minds is characteristically dark and uncompromising. The disquieting final section of Shame offers little in the way of hope or relief, enwrapping a few desperate survivors in the muted, wasted shells of their bodies, drifting to nowhere on a sea that is dead in both a literal and metaphorical sense.