Ingmar Bergman: The Rite (1969) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Ingmar Bergman: The Rite (1969)

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Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.

Andrew COMMENTARYI have a perverse fascination with the bad movies that Ingmar Bergman made.  Aside from Crisis, which is about as bad a film as Bergman ever made, every single one of them has the kernel of a good idea nestled somewhere in the production.  That's definitely the case of today's film The Rite, which contains some intriguing and scary moments but ultimately feels like a "greatest hits" retread of his earlier productions.

The Rite was made during a very unfortunate time in Bergman's life.  His films were not enticing the same kind of furor that his movies from the 50's and very early 60's did.  Worse still, he was getting sick of the taunts and criticisms leveled at his stage productions.  So he slowly began to withdraw from his theatrical life and retired as theater director for many years.  His faith in the importance and power of theater as well as film was beginning to wane and this was reflected in The Rite very clearly.

In some ways The Rite is the offspring of Hour of the Wolf and The Magician.  The former because of the theme of grotesqueries that the imagination is able to produce and the latter because of how those imagined figments are nonetheless real and potent forces in our lives.  The Magician had a fairly noble purpose in mind by showing how art can redeem anyone.  Hour of the Wolf did not boast that optimism, but still left it slightly open that it was possible.  This film certainly shows that art can affect anyone but the nature of that affect is no longer noble or healthy.

There's also the required amount of close embraces and angry rejections that any Bergman film is contractually obligated to have.

The Rite opens with a judge interrogating a group of circus performers about their latest show.  The judge (Erik Hell) is pushing for an explanation of what happened during an "indecent" show involving nudity and a bit sexual expression.  The trio of Hans (Gunnar Bjornstrand), Sebastian (Anders Ek) and Thea (Ingrid Thulin) are each interrogated individually about why they are travelling together and what makes them want to continue performing.

During each bout of interrogation we see the three of them paired away in different settings.  Hans and Thea are married but Sebastian is Thea's lover.  Hans seems aware of this fact and accepts it but is weary of Sebastian's past.  Sebastian killed his former partner and there's the slight threat looming overhead that Hans may meet the same fate.  As their defenses break down and they are slowly driven mad they decide to try and turn the tables on the judge.  The troupe gives the judge exactly what he wants and performs a private showing of their stage performance, the results of which showcase Bergman's newfound pessimism when it comes to art.

The Rite is a bit different from Bergman's other films in that it contains almost wall to wall dialogue.  From the opening frame there are very few sequences where someone is not speaking or preparing to speak.  Unfortunately Bergman did not really have anything interesting to say with this film (at least in terms of the dialogue) and some of it was a chore to get through.  Again and again his consistent themes of death, isolation and sexual frustration were rubbing elbows with his temporary muse, censorship.  The judge has a number of intriguing conversations about why he is trying to shut the troupe down but it gets so entangled in Gothic nonsense that it's impossible to wring anything interesting out of many moments.

This isn't to say that there aren't interesting moments, such as Sebastian's flash of insight about this match.

The structure of the film is also so obviously based on a play that it becomes a bit distracting.  Each scene announces itself with a title card, it's number in order of the film's chronology, and the setting.  It seems more like something Tarantino would do many years later but with a broadened idea of what each segment would contain instead of just stating "Scene 2 - A hotel room" the proceeding with the misery.

The sets are noticeably spare and, again, seem as though they were meant more for a theatrical production but it's more to the films credit than detriment.  This is because The Rite is at least as visually interesting as many of Bergman's other films.  It's significantly more claustrophobic than anything else he had done in the past.  Very rarely are the characters able to escape the close up of the camera and when they do disaster awaits.  For example, when Sebastian finally has a moment alone to reflect on what is happening he takes the matches he was playing with and sets his bed on fire, at which point he just sits and whistles until the next scene cuts in.  What happened afterwards?  The films not saying, or even that it really happened - just that he is finally ready to burn down what he's built and will gladly revel in the results.

It's sequences like that which keep The Rite from being a failure.  Admittedly I'm being a bit hard on the film, but that's just because the elements are there to make something truly horrific and the film is trapped in this theatrical production.  It's still quite daring in a few moments, especially where the sexuality is concerned.  There is a moment where Sebastian is giving Thea cunnilingus through her underwear and a fairly graphic description by Hans to Sebastian about how best to utilize Thea's clitoris to get her to orgasm.  If anything, The Rite certainly doesn't shy away from the reality of sex and, in the conclusion, recognizes that sex is really part of the death drive that propels us all forward.

Lacan would be proud.

He would also be proud of this sequence that acts out the cycle of sex and death.

I wish I could be more excited about The Rite.  I admire it's daring in flaunting conventions of sex but that was already done better in The Silence.  I also enjoy it's Gothic and pessimistic viewpoint of art but that was previously explored to better effect in Hour of the Wolf.  Then the revenge at the end owes such a strong debt to The Magician that I would have preferred to watch that instead.

The Rite is a claustrophobic and intense experiment that is considerably more aggressive than Bergman's previous works.  But while I attained some sort of catharsis by enduring his other works I simply endured this one and noticed the patchwork nature of the production.  It's fine craft, sure, but the end result is just a song he's played better before.

Next week I'll be looking at The Passion of Anna, a Bergman film I know I watched but remember hardly anything about.  See you then!

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The Films of Ingmar Bergman

The Rite (1969)

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring Erik Hell, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Anders Ek, Ingrid Thulin.

Posted by Andrew

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