Ingmar Bergman: The Magic Flute (1975) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Ingmar Bergman: The Magic Flute (1975)

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

Andrew COMMENTARYIngmar Bergman had a passion for the theater that would have sustained him even if the motion picture camera was never invented.  But since we don't have access to that alternate history, we are left with a man who found it difficult to leave his theatrical leanings aside when it came time to making movies.  That's part of why so much of his work is reminiscent of chamber plays, as well as the many monologues and subtle curtain rising/lowering visual motifs that play out in many of his films.

Bergman clearly felt an uncontrollable lust for each mode of expression and also tried his hand at composing a number of times.  One of his hero's was Mozart and a longstanding passion project of his was to stage a rendition of Mozart's most famous opera The Magic Flute.  Bergman attacked this project with a gusto and enthusiasm that I have not seen in any of his movies.  His joy and desire at finally given the chance to film a dream project for Swedish TV shines through all of Bergman's edition of The Magic Flute.

The set construction is breathtaking and cinematographer Sven Nykvist doesn't linger with close ups so much that the wonderful details of the stage are missed.

Sad, then, for a man who so rarely let joy seep into his projects to witness the end result of The Magic Flute and feel a mixture of boredom and disappointment.  Passion was never lacking in Bergman's productions, even his ambitious failures like All These Women, but his attempt at joyfully fusing his love of theater, film, and opera doesn't work for me.  It doesn't help that I'm not exactly a Mozart fan (guilty of Chopin adoration) or operas at large.  What's left is an experimental project that I can leave on in the background when I'm really desperate for some opera, which is not terribly often I'm afraid.

As I have not seen the original production of The Magic Flute I cannot comment on what Bergman has changed, but what he presents.  The film follows Prince Tamino (Josef Kostlinger) and his bumbling friend Papageno (Hakan Hagegard) as they journey to save the life of Pamina (Irma Urrila).  They are given this task shortly after Prince Tamino's life is saved by the rather voluptuous Three Ladies (Britt-Marie Aruhn, Birgitta Smiding, Kirsten Vaupel) who are under the employ of the Queen of the Night (Birgit Nordin).  Prince Tamino and Papageno are given a magical flute, some bells, and are sent off on their merry quest.

All in all, it's pretty typical fantasy fare and there isn't that much in the story that drives my creative side wild with desire.  There are certain touches I enjoy that are clearly part of the source material.  I appreciate the strong sexual undercurrent that runs through most of the opera.  This is most evident in the first scene with the Prince and the Three Ladies as each sister tries to get the other two to leave so that they can have a moment alone with the handsome prince.  It's like a gentler version of the three "Sisters" in Dracula who fight over Jonathan Harker, and Bergman plays up their sexuality accordingly.  Also the music is pleasant and nice to leave on in the background, but to be honest the tunes in Cats get wedged in my head a little harder.

Bergman's daughter makes several appearances in close up as our audience surrogate who gives us hints about how to react to certain moments.

What sets this film aside from Bergman's many other productions is the aforementioned attempt at capturing the joy of multiple forms of performance art.  From the first frame we see that Bergman is intending this film to showcase his love of music, theater and film all in one go.  The opening shots consist of crowd members young and old, male and female, of many races simply sitting in rapt attention of the overture that wafts through the theater.  Bergman constantly reminds us that this is a theatrical production by cutting back to the crowd and showing the myriad of set changes that take place throughout the show.

Bergman worked once again with cinematographer Sven Nykvist to bring this opera to life.  Somehow, even when filming a fantasy, Nykvist manages to find the most appropriate close up of each participants face during the opera's many high and low points.  At times the magic and theatrical wizardry on display feels like a test run for Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, but the two of them keep things moving swiftly enough so that the camera is not lingering on one set detail or expression for too long.

All of this, unfortunately, leads to a fairly muddled final product.  My lack of enthusiasm for opera might have been redeemed had Bergman picked one aspect of this production to focus on and stick with it.  He's so intent on showcasing that what we're watching is really a production that the camera will frequently cut away to the crowd so we can get reaction shots during the emotional moments.  Or we'll see the characters playing "themselves" offstage as they smoke cigarettes, read comics, or relax between takes.

Artificial or no, there are some terrifying anthropomorphic animals on display in this production.

This has the unfortunate effect of shattering the illusion from both ends.  Film, for the most part, requires a greater degree of realism and suspension of disbelief from the audience in order for it to function properly.  The stage is a place for big emotion and can get away with a larger degree of artificiality that just doesn't work in film (see Dogville for a good reason about why stage ideas just don't always translate well to film).

For this movie I just couldn't get involved with viewing it as a film because it was more concerned with audience reactions and sharing in their appreciation of the production and music.  This is a nice thought, but distracting when the bulk of the story takes place "on stage" and is where the supposed locus of interest is supposed to lie.  Bergman's enthusiasm is palpable the whole time, but it seems like he was so eager to please that he forgot about some of the necessary steps to bring his film going audience into the picture and not just the fictional theatrical one in attendance.

Fans of opera will not be disappointed by the film but those hoping for an interesting Bergman experience will only receive it in bits and pieces.  None of the performances are bad, a few too many engage in the grating and extreme pitch changes that exist in operatic singing, but it's all pleasant enough to go through quickly.  On stage this would have been a miracle, on screen it's merely ok.

Next week I'll be looking at the film that (at last) brings together the talents of Bergman and David Carradine, The Serpent's Egg.

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The Films of Ingmar Bergman

The Magic Flute (1975)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring  Josef Kostlinger, Irma Urrila and Hakan Hagegard.

Posted by Andrew

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