Criterion // 2006 // 83 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // June 25th, 2009
An unforgettable final glimpse of a man who transformed cinema.
With the release of this documentary, Bergman Island takes on a new meaning. Previously, as a physical space it meant the island of Fårö, a small land mass off the coast of Sweden, home to fewer than six hundred people. Here was Bergman's sanctuary, his home and the place where he filmed several of his movies (including Scenes from a Marriage). As a psychic space, Bergman's island could be described as the unique atmosphere that his films created, no matter where they were filmed. Influenced by the physical island, his films are often introspective, but also filled with lived experience. We can now add a cinematic meaning to Bergman Island with this excellent documentary.
Filmed over several weeks, Bergman Island is an impressively intimate look at the waning hours of one of cinema's true legends. With unprecedented access to the man himself, Marie Nyreröd captures stories from Bergman that cover his entire life to that point. In the film's 83 minutes, Bergman is remarkably candid, whether he's discussing his abusive father or his last directorial effort, Saraband. Even those not particularly interested in Bergman's cinema will find something interesting in a man who has lived so long and so completely mastered a single medium (which is not to diminish his radio, stage, or television triumphs).
I absolutely think that Bergman Island is essential viewing for fans of art-house cinema. However, I have a couple of problems with Bergman Island: Criterion Collection:
First, there's more to be had. Nyreröd spent a long time with Bergman and shot a lot of footage for Swedish television. IMDb reports that there is a 174-minute version of Bergman's Island out there. I can understand if Nyreröd wanted to present a single, coherent vision with this 83-minute version, but making the rest of the footage available would have been an even greater boon to Bergman fans. As it stands, this is a great but incomplete portrait of the artist.
Second, this standalone release is completely redundant. This DVD is exactly the same disc included as part of the two-disc DVD edition of The Seventh Seal that Criterion released on the same date (and the same content is available on the Blu-ray edition as well). For less than ten dollars more than this release, fans can own both the beautifully restored version of The Seventh Seal and Bergman Island. Unless you've bought both the Criterion laserdisc and previous DVD edition of The Seventh Seal and are refusing to triple dip, there's no reason not to get this documentary as part of the Seventh Seal package.
If I have one complaint about the documentary itself, it's that it's not as information-dense as I'd like. Often we get shots of Bergman going about his daily routines in between his talking. These are fine bits of filmmaking, but given the 83-minute runtime, I want as much from Bergman's mouth as I can get. I'd rather see that stuff in deleted scenes, even if that would make the film a less visually interesting and perhaps more sterile documentary.
This disc is up to the usual Criterion standard, with a decent audiovisual presentation. The video shows no obvious difficulties with the source, and the cool atmosphere of this Swedish island is beautifully presented in shades of blue. The audio does a fine job presenting Bergman's rich voice, and the subtitles are well done in an easily readable font. For extras we get a video filmography created by renowned Bergman scholar Peter Cowie that provides a visual overview of Bergman's films. There's also a short essay by Nyreröd with some wonderful tidbits in it (for instance, Bergman agreed to answer any question, but wouldn't allow himself to be filmed swimming).
Bergman Island is a treasure for fans of cinema, but this disc is difficult to recommend. Instead, go for the latest Criterion edition of The Seventh Seal in the format of your choice and give Bergman Island a spin after you've been wowed by the new transfer of The Seventh Seal. If you have no desire to own that film, then Bergman Island is at least worth a rental as an impressive portrait of a unique artist.
Although it's a bit redundant, Bergman Island is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.77:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Swedish)
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated