Apologies, first, for the gap in the reviews. In my defense, my country was going a little haywire and then correcting itself and then we got a new president sworn in and all that was going on while I was doing physical therapy and…. but, actually, the biggest reason for this delay is that I legitimately wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this Ingmar Bergen film. In a good way.
It’s a fairly simple story – a doctor and professor in Stockholm, Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), is being honored by his university, and decides to drive himself there. His son Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand) is due to meet him there, so his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), who’s been staying with him due to some marital strife, asks if she can ride along and maybe check in on Evald.
Isak and Marianne have some heart-to-heart talks as they drive, and the route takes them through many of Isak’s old stomping grounds from his youth; it also leads them to meet some quirky fellow travelers, like the free-spirited Sara (Bibi Andersson), a tomboy who’s trying to hitch her way to Rome along with two of her besotted admirers. Sara is a dead ringer for Isak’s long-lost first love (also named Sara and also played by Andersson) who ran off with Isak’s brother instead. It all prompts a lot of introspection on Isak’s part about the course of his life, the choices he’s made, and where they’ve brought him.
That kind of introspective story can absolutely be affecting – an internal drama is just as compelling as anything active. But filming that kind of story can be tough – you have to have something for an audience to look at; it can’t all be Isak pensively looking out windows with a voiceover describing his thoughts. So it’s probably telling that my own biggest complaint isn’t that Bergman didn’t show me enough; it’s that he staged the story so well that I wanted to hear more.
Bergman said once that this film sprang from an idea he had when driving past his grandmother’s old house – imagining what it would be like if he pulled over and walked through the door, and were transported instantly back to his grandmother’s house circa 20 years earlier, with his grandma in the kitchen and his cousins and parents all bumbling around doing whatever they were doing. Bergman uses that technique a couple times – Isak imagining himself back in his youth, interacting with his first love and his cousins and parents, or Isak remembering an argument with his wife Karin (Gertrud Fridh) about their unhappy marriage. A couple of highly-symbolic dream sequences also hint at his inner turmoil.
But I ended up learning more about Isak’s mental journey through the conversations he had with the rest of his little troupe. He and Marianne are icily formal at first – he’s been happy to take her in, but not happy that his son’s marriage is on the rocks – and she’s always found him to be a little too dictatorial and formal, and even a little cruel to Ervald. She straight-up tells him so early on in the trip. But by the end of the film they’ve come to understand each other, and in her last scene, just as Marianne is leaving to meet Ervald for a bit of a peace conference, Marianne stops, turns back to Isak , and fondly says “I like you, you know.” The cheeky Sara and her two swains also undergo some growth – they come across as brash hipsters at first, deliberately saying scandalous things to get a rise out of Marianne and Isak (“I’d better tell you I’m a virgin,” Sara casually mentions when she gets in their car; “that’s why I’m so cheeky”). But Marianne starts mother-henning them, Isak is especially indulgent to Sara, and the road trip is such a bonding experience for them that instead of continuing on their hike, the teens end up hovering in the crowd outside Isak’s ceremony to wave and cheer him on.
Maybe that’s what has me disappointed – Marianne and the kids undergo a more obvious change over the course of the film, but for Isak it’s more of an internal thing. Marianne has come to better understand Isak, which in turn helps her understand Ervald and perhaps start to mend fences. And Sara drops the brash front she’s been using on Isak and lets some genuine sweetness come through. But Isak doesn’t really get as much of an obvious “reward” for his journey, save for some insight about his own past. Which is still a lot, of course; Isak ends the film comforted by old memories instead of tortured by them. But I wanted to see him do something with that insight – have a talk with Ervald himself! go on his own trip to Rome! leave Stockholm for good! – instead of experiencing a moment of inner peace and then going to sleep. One of the final memory/flashbacks in the film was so idyllic and so vivid I was expecting it to lead into a discovery that Isak had died in his sleep, and was a little thrown when it didn’t.
Ugh – I hate that it sounds like this is a dismissal, because it’s not. On the contrary, I think the very fact that I was able to get such a clear picture of Isak’s mental state to the point that I wanted to see more of it is a sign that Bergman was successful in conveying that state to me in the first place. I’m a little like Marianne – by the end of the film I kind of liked Isak too and wanted to know he was going to be okay.