Italian popular cinema in the 1960s and 1970s is a thing of wonder and I certainly haven’t seen enough of it. MUBI are currently offering a short season of recent Italian films which are mostly not the kind of Italian films that currently achieve international distribution. I’ve moaned on this blog frequently about Italian films I’ve seen in festivals that should be seen in the UK but they never seem to get here. Life as a B Movie is very welcome as an online offering because it tells a story about a singular figure in Italian media and does so with numerous clips from the films which benefited from his involvement.
The subject of this documentary biopic is Piero Vivarelli (1927-2010) who was perhaps most importantly a writer but also a music promoter and director of a broad range of ‘B’ pictures. His first interest appears to have been music (pop and jazz) and his obsession appears to have been variations of the ‘youth picture’ or as he was more prone to express it, the battle between the young generation and their parents’ generation. We get to see clips from several pop music influenced youth pix, one of which, Howlers of the Dock (1960) has a squadron of Vespa riding youths well before Quadrophenia. Vivarelli co-wrote with many people and seemed to have a real knack of finding talented people to work with including Lucio Fulci who would later become a well-known genre film director. With Fulci and others Vivarelli wrote the song ’24 Mila Baci’ or ‘24,000 Kisses’ which became a No 1 hit in Italy and Spain. This was a period in which Italian pop music became popular across Europe and was even covered in the UK and the US. I was amazed to realise that ’24 Mila Baci’ features on the soundtrack of Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Ida (Poland 2013), set in 1962. We also see an interview with the Serbian director Emir Kusturica who used a performance of the song in an early film.
Vivarelli’s own films include an intriguing youth romance set in Berlin at the time of the building of the Berlin Wall in 1962, known as East Zone, West Zone in English and starring Helmut Griem who became an international film star in the 1970s. Perhaps his most prominent role for international audiences was as one (arguably the most significant) of the writers of Django (Italy-Spain 1966) the Western with a host of later ‘sequels’. The documentary includes interviews with Franco Nero, the central character and explores the role of Vivarelli alongside director Sergio Corbuci and co-writer Franco Rossetti, who like Vivarelli came from Siena.
The documentary’s directors offer this statement:
To depict this offbeat, complex, unsung Italian pop culture personality we chose a non-linear narrative style with several intersecting thematic story lines weaved into an only partly chronological tapestry. The key to our narrative is the deep interconnection that we came across between his life and his movies. The title is not a gimmick.
Our intention was to bring to fore the pioneer aspects of the pioneer/provocateur Piero Vivarelli in Italian music and movies, trying to place him not just locally, but within the broader context of the post-war global pop culture explosion. At the same time we tried to provide a sense of a very particular typically Italian post-war vitality that he encapsulates. It’s the particular energy that prompted Tarantino’s passion for the Italian B-movie genre. Last but not least, we tried to recount his extraordinary erotic sensuality, the driving force for everything Piero did.
Fabrizio Laurenti, Niccolò Vivarelli
Niccolò Vivarelli is (according to Cineuropa) Piero Vivarelli’s grandson. This doesn’t mean that the documentary shies away from Vivarelli’s less savoury qualities. He was a determined womaniser and not averse to cheating on wives and lovers with the singers and actresses he met. He was not a good father and he lost a son to drugs, but the many interviewees, including those who might be expected to be hurt, seem prepared to praise him. He was attracted to women of colour and married the Jamaican actor Beryl Cunningham who was a leading player in Il dio serpente (1970). This film was made in Columbia and developed Vivarelli’s interest in erotic movies. It was followed by The Black Decameron (1972), again with Cunningham, but this time made in Senegal. I was amazed to discover that Vivarelli knew Djibril Diop Mambety, who has a role in the film.This seems so unlikely and I can’t find any supporting evidence in, for instance, IMDb but it seems a confident claim. Claims are also made that during the shoot in Senegal, (which had support from President Senghor), Vivarelli was able to meet rebels from Guinea-Bissau, led by Luís Cabral, who were fighting for independence from Portuguese colonialism and we see photographic evidence. Vivarelli does seem to have been an extraordinary man and the documentary’s title seems apt. His life defied any neat description or classification.
Throughout the film the two directors mix and interweave the stories of Vivarelli’s films, his numerous relationships and his political life. As a teenager he had joined a notorious fascist commando troop (a combination of parachutists and navy seals), partly because of his father’s death as an Italian soldier killed by partisans. Soon after the end of the war he switched to join the Italian Communist Party. He seems to have been radical/leftist from then on. His increasing interest in erotic movies meant further films focusing on women of colour with Codice d’amore orientale (1974) an ‘erotic documentary’ filmed in Thailand and involvement as a writer on Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle in Bangkok (1976) and Emanuelle in America (1977), both with Laura Gemser. Despite the reputations of these films, interviewees assert that Vivarelli was not a colonialist. His final film was La rumbera (Italy 1998) which presented the Cuban revolution via the story of a dancer. The film was made in Cuba and Vivarelli met Castro as seen in the photo above. Im intrigued as to what Fidel is thinking when he looks at Vivarelli.
I’m sure I haven’t done justice to this remarkable film, but it’s on MUBI until April 29 I think. Do check it out if you have a subscription. One last thought. The films Vivarelli and his collaborators made are very difficult to see now, but as one of the interviewees suggests, during the 1960s and 1970s at the height of Italian film production, many of these films sold well in Italy and overseas and they helped pave the way for the more celebrated Italian art films to gain international distribution. Vivarelli was in many ways an innovator. This trailer gives a good sense of the delirium of the documentary.
Adolescentes represented a real challenge for this reviewer. It’s twenty-five years since I last had any real contact with teenagers on a one to one basis. Could I cope with over two hours of exploring the lives of two girls growing up in Central France from the ages of 13 to 18, especially when I have managed to avoid most of the ‘reality TV’ type programming which this threatened to resemble? Well, I did survive the experience and I hope I can give a critically distanced appraisal of the film which I enjoyed very much in parts even if some aspects seemed questionable.
The film is described as a ‘documentary’ and in the sense that it records moments in the lives of the two selected teenagers it is certainly a documentary record. On the other hand, a link to the Griersonian definition of ‘a creative treatment of actuality’ seems a little more doubtful. The reality TV mode is usually developed towards an entertainment function in which we are asked to become involved in narratives about winners and losers. That isn’t the case here even if the film is inevitably ‘narrativised’ by the selection of ‘moments’ when judgements are made. Director Sébastien Lifshitz made some interesting decisions such as opting for a CinemaScope ratio and commissioning music from Claire Denis collaborators Tindersticks which help the film to feel more like a fiction feature. The overall format is not original and is perhaps best known via the television films of the ‘Up‘ series in which cameras have revisited a group of characters every seven years since 1963. However, that series is much more obviously a long term project in which the subjects speak to camera and respond to questions. Lifshitz simply ‘observed’ his two participants during short periods of two or three days selected to cover the main aspects of their lives over five years.
The two subjects of the documentary are Anaïs and Emma, best friends attending the same middle school in the small city of Brive in South Central France, with Limoges as the nearest major centre. Lifshitz wanted to find a community outside Paris and he suggests that Brive was interesting partly because of its distinct seasons – hot summers and cold winters. Originally he had thought of following a boy but soon became convinced that a girl would be more interesting because, as many teachers and others told him, girls in France have changed much more in the last fifteen years. He actually found two girls in the same school. He did worry that it might not be appropriate for a man to follow the lives of teenage girls so closely but they and, surprisingly perhaps, their parents seemed happy to participate – more on this later. The film covers the years 2013 to 2018 and includes some reactions to the major events in France during the period (including the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan and the election of President Macron). The girls were born in 2000 so they represent the new generation of the 21st century.
Shifitz is concerned to ‘show and not tell’, so for those of us outside France, aspects of the French education system do need a little explanation. As far as I can work out, Anaïs and Emma attend the same middle school but then make different choices at 15 which mean they attend different high schools and will make different decisions again after taking the baccalauréat at 18. Anaïs is from a working-class family. She has a difficult family life because her mother is hospitalised a couple of times and she has two brothers, one of whom needs care. She has some issues with her weight but she’s an attractive and sociable young woman who works hard when she wants to and does well in her vocational bac (known as a CAP or Certificat d’aptitude professionnelle). Emma is more conventionally attractive and comes from a wealthier, professional family. Her mother is a tax inspector and her father is a sales executive who seems to travel a great deal. Emma has a difficult relationship with her mother and that may be one reason she lacks self-confidence. She opts for a ‘professional bac‘, hoping for a place in a film school – previously she thought about becoming a singer. Don’t leap to any conclusions about the choices the girls make. As a teacher of vocational education I was pleased by the decision Anaïs made and how she handled herself in high school. I don’t think my outline sketch ‘spoils’ the documentary narrative. There are many other incidents and narrative subtexts in the film and I certainly found it an engaging watch.
The questions that arise are, not surprisingly, about some of the more intimate situations into which the camera intrudes. There are two specific questions. The first is about the conversations between the two girls and with their peers (the other girls). They talk about how they are approaching losing their virginity and, since they spend summers by the pool in their bikinis they talk about their bodies. In the Press Notes Sébastien Lifshitz says that at first he covered the girls’ interactions mainly in long shots but later he felt that he could use a long lens to get much closer to his subjects – with their permission. This means that as well as close-ups of their heads and shoulders we also have close-up images of thighs when the girls discuss their ‘stretch marks’ from their rapid growth as teenagers. It did make me wonder how the girls would respond when they saw these shots on a cinema screen. Lifshitz does tell us that they first giggled at seeing themselves but then he said:
I believe that the film was for them a cold revealing mirror which made them realise things about themselves. But the most important thing for me was that they recognised themselves in it. Adolescence is a continent both dark and sunny. (My approximate translation of the original French.)
He also reveals that Emma spoke about seeing herself arguing with her mother and wondered if she (Emma) was really like that. This leads me to my second question which is really at the root of my objection to much of the ‘reality TV’ type of narrative. I feel uncomfortable commenting on how the parents behave in this film and I do wonder how Lifshitz made decisions about what to include. I also wonder how the parents themselves came to agree to allow his camera in to the arguments they had with their children. We all tend to regret the way we behave in arguments sometimes but we don’t then get to see ourselves arguing on a cinema screen. Lifshitz states elsewhere in the Press Notes that of course he is aware of the camera becoming an instrument that mediates behaviour but then says that the girls in particular seemed to forget about it completely. As a spectator it did seem to me that scenes flowed so naturally that it was easy to feel that I was watching a fiction performed by non-professionals who had been well briefed. The teachers in the classrooms are not named so I do feel able to say that for all its good qualities, I do feel that the school scenes demonstrate the conservative/traditional pedagogy I’ve seen in other French films set in schools. It’s all ‘talk and chalk’ with students in rows of desks and teachers standing at the front. Do they ever try group work or a more democratic open discussion arena? Mind you we may have lost all those progressive ideas in English education after Michael Gove and his vandals’ attacks on the methods I and my colleagues used to use.
I’m certainly glad I watched Adolescentes. I’m still not sure about the ethics of the film but these seemed like two sensible young women and I hope they have succeeded in their further studies even in the face of the current pandemic. The narrative ends in Autumn 2018. The film is technically very good with camerawork by Paul Guilhaume and Antoine Parouty and editing by Tina Baz providing exactly what is needed by Sébastien Lifshitz. I didn’t really notice the music but in this context I think that means it worked in harmony with the other elements. Adolescentes is still streaming as part of My French Film Festival. Here is the trailer (no subtitles) from Unifrance.
This music documentary has a familiar format and was broadcast on BBC4 in the channel’s Friday night music schedule back in August 2020. It’s still available on iPlayer in the UK. Producer, writer and director Simon Sheridan’s work is usually much more likely to turn up on channels with lesser reputations. His other claim to fame is a number of books and films celebrating two major figures of British ‘soft porn’, George Harrison Marks and Mary Millington. There are some positive things to say about these two characters and the bizarre world of UK porn history and its part in British cinema, but it’s still a step away from what I think is an important film about the first, and most successful, all-Black British vocal group, The Real Thing and, very importantly, their emergence from Toxteth in Liverpool 8.
I certainly remember the tune that propelled The Real Thing to No. 1 in the pop charts in 1976, ‘You To Me Are Everything’. What I didn’t know or perhaps had forgotten was the earlier history of the Amoo Brothers in Liverpool. I feel that I should have known this history and I’m now grateful to have learned so much from this 59 min documentary. The documentary offers the usual collection of talking heads, photographs and news clippings and archive film. What is more unusual is the quality and the importance of the ‘witness statements’ and the analysis, most notably the Black music journalist Kevin Le Gendre and others including the singers Kim Wilde and Billy Ocean as well as other significant Black fans and industry figures. The two major points are that the origins of the The Real Thing are to be found in Toxteth, Liverpool 8, the home of the oldest Black community in the UK in one of the UK’s major slave-trading cities of the 18th century. It says something when a Black singing group was able to get the support of the Beatles early in their Cavern days and were also supported by the legendary Liverpool MP Bessie Braddock – only then to discover how difficult it was to get a hit record, even with this kind of support. This early group was known as The Chants who emerged in 1962 as a five piece a capella group singing doo-wop material from the US. Amongst the five was Eddie Amoo who also wrote material. The group were popular in Liverpool and were also booked in other UK cities and in Ireland. They recorded songs with several major record labels but just couldn’t find a hit.
A few years after the Chants were formed, Eddie’s younger brother Chris started up the group that eventually became The Real Thing with Dave Smith, Kenny Davis and Ray Lake in 1970. The group sang light/sweet soul versions of American originals and released several records without getting a hit single. Their breakthrough came as second billing to David Essex on tour and when The Chants broke up, Eddie Amoo joined The Real Thing. In 1976 in the midst of the hottest, driest summer for years they released ‘You To Me Are Everything’ (written for the band by Ken Gold, Michael Denne)and finally they made it – big, all the way to No.1 in the UK. In the US, it made the lower reaches of the chart but suffered from competition from several cover versions. In 1977, after several more hit singles they attempted what many other groups have tried, a different kind of record, one which meant more to them than simply a commercial entertainment. They released the LP ‘Four from Eight’, a title watered down by their record label which referred to four Black lads from Toxteth. The LP included the track ‘Children of the Ghetto’ and like the American soul artists they admired, they wanted to make ‘statements’, but it was difficult and the album failed to sell. However, ‘Children of the Ghetto’ was recorded by other artists and a version by Philip Bailey appears on the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s Clockers (US 1995). The Real Thing’s commercial songs were re-mixed in the 1980s and charted all over again. Eventually the four piece became a duo of Chris Amoo and Dave Smith who continue to this day, touring and still raising a storm. Eddie Amoo is interviewed in the film but he died in 2018. The film does explore something of the lives of all the personnel in the both The Chants and The Real Thing. I found it both entertaining and informative as a documentary and I was pleased to see it as an accessible way into an important story about Black cultural life in Liverpool and its presentation for a wider audience. Do check it out.
This is arguably the simplest possible structure for a documentary about a filmmaker that you could imagine. Brian De Palma (born 1940) sits in front of the camera and talks about his life and his work across six decades. The camera frames him head on and nobody else appears on screen. De Palma introduces clips from, as far as I could see, every one of his feature films as well as several early student films and at least one of his Bruce Springsteen music videos. There are also clips from various films that might have been important influences and some ‘behind the scenes’ footage and stills. I can’t remember if any of the footage is shown in split screen with De Palma’s own work – he was very fond of the split screen. The director proves an engaging raconteur and one blessed with both enough vanity to laud his own efforts and enough humility to recognise the clunkers. You would have to be pretty hard-hearted not to enjoy his tales. He was 75 when the documentary was released and he’s still going.
But what does he tell us and do we learn much about Hollywood? In a generally very positive review the New York Times critic A.O. Scott admits:
Mr. De Palma’s recollections are so vivid and warm that ancient war stories seem fresh. It’s hard for even the most determinedly forward-looking film critic to suppress a twinge of generational envy. Forty years ago, we would have been contemplating Carrie, Jaws and Taxi Driver, with the two Godfather movies in the rearview mirror and Star Wars on the horizon.
Well, I was there and saw all those movies when they were released. I had forgotten the extent to which, at the time, De Palma was so closely associated with Scorsese in particular and the other ‘Movie Brats’. The one De Palma didn’t mention, I think, in reference to the group was William Friedkin, though he does tell us that he soon became fed up of car chases and after The French Connection he thought it had all been done. I watched most Hollywood ‘New Wave’ movies in the early 1970s. For me, Lucas was gone after American Graffiti and Spielberg, though a fantastic technician, holds little interest for me now. De Palma, however, was important alongside Scorsese. Coppola was already involved in studio filmmaking in the 1960s, so my main interest in this documentary was to learn about De Palma’s early forays into New York filmmaking and to be reminded of films like Sisters (1972) and Phantom of the Paradise (1974), a film I’d like to see again. I learned a lot from this section, including which young actors De Palma worked with; Bill Finley, Jennifer Salt and Jill Clayburgh as well as Robert de Niro – who all appeared in The Wedding Party, made in 1963 but not released until 1969. At this time De Palma was effectively being mentored by Wilford Leach. De Palma had been a science major at university so his film training had been through short courses and projects. I realise now that Phantom of the Paradise was the first of his films I’d seen on release in the UK. After that I picked up on Sisters (1972) with Margot Kidder which became a cult film.
I was aware of De Palma’s fascination with Hitchcock and to the specific influences on his work that might be seen as ‘Hitchcockian’. In 1976, however, when I saw Obsession, I had not yet seen Vertigo (which was unavailable in the UK for several years). I remember that I was very impressed by Obsession but unaware of just how close it was to Vertigo, which De Palma had seen as an 18 year-old in New York on its initial release. Jimmie Stewart’s rooftop nightmare is in fact the opening clip of the documentary and De Palma talks about Obsession in some detail. He claims to be the director most influenced by Hitchcock. I can see the influences, but I’m a little surprised that having recognised the impact of seeing early French New Wave films as student filmmaker (he shows clips of Truffaut, Godard and Chabrol films) he doesn’t mention them (and particularly Truffaut and Chabrol) in relation to the Hitchcock influences in their work. And across the rest of the documentary he seems relatively disinterested in what is happening elsewhere outside Hollywood. This is a shame since one intriguing link I picked up was that Jessica Harper, the star of Dario Argento’s Suspiria in 1977 was also a lead in Phantom of the Paradise. I hadn’t made the link because I didn’t see Suspiria until the 1990s.
It’s also interesting that at least one reviewer describes this documentary as similar to the Truffaut-Hitchcock ‘conversations’ that became a book and then the documentary film Hitchcock/Truffaut (US 2015). That film didn’t really grab me and I’m not sure why. De Palma works better for me, possibly because of De Palma’s address to camera. It does make me wonder though what producer-directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow actually did on this film, apart from just letting De Palma ‘go’ and then hiring a good editor. The question about this documentary is why it achieves something beyond the conventional TV documentary which uses clips and strings of anecdotes from talking heads. I note that several critics refer to it as a ‘master class’ by ‘American cinema’s greatest storyteller’ etc. I think that might be over-selling it, but it is true that that De Palma does illustrate and analyse how he achieved the sense of movement and vitality that underpins his features. He is also in a unique position to discuss the emergence of ‘New Hollywood’ in the late 1960s and early 70s – and the difficulties directors like himself encountered with the new ‘corporatised’ Hollywood that developed from the 1980s onwards. I ‘enjoyed’ or was challenged by his films up to the 1980s but I mostly haven’t seen the later films so the final third of the film didn’t hold much interest for me apart from De Palma’s comments on the struggles he faced with studio executives and the frustrations of trying to step outside conventional formats and the “visual clichés” created by working with CGI companies.
The question in 2020, in the era of #MeToo, and debates about representation, is how we should view De Palma’s presentation of his female characters and whether he exploits the women he casts – or provides them with opportunities to drive narratives that have engaged wide audiences, including women as well as men. At one point he tells us that he really enjoys photographing women. He is also quite prepared to ask them to strip for scenes. For Body Double he wanted to cast a well-known porn actress but was foiled by the studio. But the same actress helped Melanie Griffiths prepare for her role in the film. I found the nudity to be an important part of Carrie, a horror film with a real punch and I did find Dressed to Kill to be very effective but disturbing. It would be interesting to know more about what the women in these films thought about them.
Carrie, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible have been on TV in the last few days in primetime slots, suggesting they still have wide appeal. De Palma’s films, at least from the earlier period have held up well, with the proviso that they happened before current debates about abuse of actors began. De Palma’s commentary in this documentary is enjoyable and informative and De Palma is currently on MUBI.
This unusual little film, barely an hour long, intrigues though little seems to happen in what passes as a narrative. It is only afterwards, while reflecting on the film, that you realise that it is a carefully considered construction, a hybrid of fiction and documentary that aims to make a number of interesting and important statements. After several festival screenings it is now available on MUBI in the UK. One of the two writer-directors, Sergio Da Costa developed an idea first and then discovered a Swiss documentary project that offered to fully fund a film. Da Costa applied with his partner Maya Kosa and they were awarded funding. Kosa then became as enthusiastic as Da Costa (the pair had worked together on a previous film, Rio Corgo (2015).
The two filmmakers had discovered an injured bird by the roadside in 2013 and taken it to a bird rehabilitation centre near the airport in Geneva. It was Da Costa who was surprised that the centre didn’t correspond to the stereotype of a sanitised Swiss operation. It seemed more chaotic. Da Costa says he was more sensitised by the place: “I saw its cinematic potential as a disaster film”. (See the interview on MUBI.) What the filmmakers then produced was a fiction which used some of the real workers at the centre plus a non-professional actor playing the central character Antonin. All the actors used their own first names. The cast is actually much smaller than the workforce of the centre, allowing more focus on the characters. Antonin is a young man recovering from cancer treatment and he arrives at the centre as a form of apprentice, learning a job partly as therapy. He is still subject to moments of complete lack of energy and his habit of literally falling asleep at work is a surprise to Paul, the older man who is about to retire after teaching Antonin how to breed mice and rats that will be fed to the captive birds of prey in the centre. As well as Paul, the other featured workers are Sandrine, who generally cares for the birds, Emilie the vet and Iwan who appears to be a handyman of sorts.
There certainly is an air of melancholy about the centre and we see some scenes that the usual audience for TV wildlife programmes might find distressing. I haven’t watched the various TV reality shows featuring vets, but I suspect they may show some of Emilie’s activities. She works on the wounds suffered by a swan, an owl that has suffered severe shock and is required to euthanase a small bird. The mice have to be killed by Antonin and then dissected to provide fresh meat for the convalescing birds. Most of what I’ve described might be expected in a documentary about the centre, which is also a centre in which some of the staff are ‘rehabilitating’ as well as the birds they care for. Fortunately we don’t get any of the less welcome features of TV wildlife programmes such as the anthropomorphising of birds, cheery presenters or dramatic music. However we do get some music and several other artistic devices. The brief music uses comprise three classical/religious pieces which Da Costa says came from his own sensitivity to religious music and he agrees that they are part of the melancholic feel. (The three pieces are by Georg Philipp Telemann, Dieterich Buxtehude and Sergei Rachmaninoff). Elsewhere on the soundtrack we are aware of the planes flying over. There are also several snatches of voiceover taken from a diary the filmmakers asked Antonin to keep during the production. The reference here is to Robert Bresson’s 1951 film Diary of a Country Priest. These references might lead you to think that the film is overly serious and pretentious but this isn’t so. The melancholy is relieved by moments of tenderness and humour as well as sadness. One idea that worked for me is the way in which a heat-sensitive camera is used (differently) a couple of times. The first time it is used is surprising but works well if you stick with it.
I began by suggesting that little happens in the narrative but that isn’t really the case. There is drama and Antonin definitely learns and changes as a result of his experiences. I note that the filmmakers have thought a lot about how the centre is a kind of retreat from the damage caused by humans both to each other, to other other living creatures and to the ecology as a whole. One of the references in what appears like an artist’s ‘mood board’ on MUBI’s presentation pages on the film is a cover from an edition of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. This is a gentle humanist film focusing on an institution that tries to repair some of the damage human society has caused.
The film was shot on 16mm and is presented without masking in Academy ratio. Dialogue is in French. I’m still thinking about it and I certainly recommend watching it.
I was profoundly moved by this film (currently streaming on MUBI) for many reasons. It’s a film about a mother, a wife and a lover as much as it is about a strong independent woman determined to pursue her art. The two can’t be separated. There is one line in the film spoken by Isabella Rossellini with genuine feeling, when she gives ‘charm’ as the one word to sum up her mother and that struck me quite forcibly. It’s perhaps a strange word to choose about your mother and in other contexts we are often suspicious about celebrities described as ‘having charm’, as if we know this masks other possible less acceptable sides to their personalities. But each of Ingrid Bergman’s four children agree that their mother was always fun to be with and they remember that fondly even though she was absent from their childhood homes for much of the time. When she was there she made it up to them. Her ‘absences’ were mainly to do with work but she was clearly so determined to pursue what she wanted that needing to be close to her children was not something that would stop her.
Bergman’s was a remarkable career, arguably not matched by any other actor. She began, as many Swedish actors of her generation, in drama school and then moved quickly into films with her first credited role in 1935 aged 20. She also got married for the first time in 1936. Her Swedish film career lasted until 1940 by which time she had already repeated one of her roles in Hollywood and from 1941 she quickly became a Hollywood star contracted to David O. Selznick. In a few short years Bergman became a beloved figure in the US before she ‘scandalised’ America in 1949 by moving to Italy to work for and fall in love with Roberto Rossellini, leaving behind her husband and her daughter. Her Rossellini years ended in the mid 1950s by which time she had moved to Paris, making a film for Jean Renoir and eventually re-connecting with Hollywood, mainly on European productions. The last part of her career was spent working out of London.
Ingrid Bergman was a different kind of ‘global film star’. All the stars (and the filmmakers) of classical Hollywood were ‘global’ in the sense that their films were seen everywhere. Several stars had travelled from Europe to America and possibly back – but usually to the same country they had left several years before. But few had made films (and sometimes appeared on stage) in productions in five different languages (Swedish, German, English, Italian and French). It was an extraordinary career. I offer all this as context since this documentary focuses more on Bergman herself and less on the films she appeared in. IMDb lists 55 credits for film and television (around full 40 feature films). I feel slightly distanced from the discussion of Bergman as an actor and star simply because I don’t approach her as a Hollywood star primarily. She herself in the documentary says that the films she made with Rossellini did not appeal to audiences and there is an implication that she herself didn’t like them or value them that much. This is disappointing since it was watching Stromboli (1949) in a BFI preview theatre which first caused me to become interested in Bergman and I’ve come to like the other films with Rossellini as well. This doesn’t mean I don’t necessarily like the American films – I think her playing in Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) remains one of the great viewing pleasures. I’ve also enjoyed Renoir’s Elena et les hommes (1956) and the Swedish June Night (1940).
In formal terms, this ‘bio doc’ might be grouped with the trilogy of similar films by Asif Kapadia which present the stories of Ayrton Senna (2010), Amy Winehouse (2015) and Diego Maradona (2019). As in those stories, the director, Stig Björkman (a celebrated veteran film writer, critic and journalist), has been able to ‘present’ the story of his subject entirely through either Bergman’s own words (recorded in diaries and letters) and images (captured on 16mm) plus archive film and television and the stories of her immediate family and friends. Alicia Vikander, in many ways a contemporary star with a similar career path, reads Bergman’s words from her diaries. The major difference between Björkman’s film and those of Kapadia is that Bergman’s is a much longer story and although it includes ‘media moments’ when she scandalised America, this is only part of the story and not a defining element of the whole. There are other lesser differences as well but overall this quartet represent a popular form of biopic, able to draw upon archive material with seeming authenticity – though of course each film is still written and edited and the choices made still determine how the narrative is likely to be read by the audience.
What emerges from Bergman’s story is a narrative that exposes her difficult childhood and teenage years when she lost her mother at a very early age and then her beloved father. This is then contrasted with her happiness in bearing four beautiful children in the difficult circumstances outlined above (i.e. the divorces and the absences). The film is full of insights and we learn that Ingrid’s remarkable poise and calmness for the camera comes from her early experience of being photographed by her father and this in turn led to her own adoption of a film camera (16mm and colour) to record her own children (she came from a middle-class family and was used to a life with the privileges of travel and nice homes). I’ve seen comments by viewers who claim to be easily bored by ‘home movies’ but I think that Bergman’s camera captures something lively and emotionally powerful. There are more ‘talking head’ ‘witness statements’ in this film than in those of Kapadia, I think (i.e. more statements recorded later). This wasn’t a problem for me and as an aside it seemed to me that more women spoke about working with her. It was interesting to hear Liv Ullman and Sigourney Weaver. I hadn’t realised that there was so much discussion about Bergman’s height (references vary but 5′ 8” to 5′ 9” seems most common) in Hollywood, but Sigourney Weaver explains that it was a relief to meet a female actor who had never been bothered by her height – which in the 1940s was tall for women. Out of all the Hollywood footage the most compelling is the first screen test Bergman had in Hollywood for Selznick, for which the clapperboard says “No Make-Up, No lip gloss”. Ingrid looks young, fresh, vital and very lovely with an immediate warm response to the camera. (See the last shot of the trailer below and the still above.) No wonder they wanted her.
I watched Ava Gardner on screen a few days ago and she was breathtakingly beautiful. Ingrid Bergman was also beautiful but she had something else as well. I’m still not quite sure what it was and it’s interesting that I have appreciated it more as I’ve got older. I’m going to look at her films again. As far as this documentary is concerned I should also report that Michael Nyman’s music is used throughout. Personally I like Nyman’s music but I know he is ‘Marmite’ – with great fans and also those who can’t stand the music. My only gripe about the film is that sometimes Alicia Vikander’s modern American-tinged accent grates. I like Ms Vikander as an actor ver much and I place the blame on the director. I’m sure she could have read the diaries and letters in a style closer to Bergman’s in the 1930s/40s. I’ve emphasised that the documentary doesn’t cover all the films, but even so I was disappointed that there is very little reference to her time in London in the final part of her career and the three pictures she made in the UK.
[Once last point for Keith. This film is listed as 1.78:1 aspect ratio, so the pre-1953 film footage should be Academy and it is, being placed inside the 16:9 frame. But having watched it on both my computer and on the TV screen and then on a recording I made when it was shown on the BBC Imagine . . . series in 2017-18, I noted that sometimes captions which had slid outside the Academy frame were clipped off by masking within the 16:9 frame. I’m not sure how that happened.]