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Bergman’s Great Last Movie Is The Next Thing

"Fanny and Alexander." (Courtesy of ArtsEmerson)

“Fanny and Alexander.” (Courtesy of ArtsEmerson)

BOSTON — The Next Thing (TNT) Festival presented by ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage — a 10-day “mash-up” of film, music, and live performance edited on the spot and streamed live — is right around the corner. TNT begins Feb. 15, but as a prelude ArtsEmerson is screening Classics of World Cinema beginning Feb 1. One of my all time favorite films is on the program Saturday February 2 at 1 p.m. — “Fanny and Alexander.“

My heart beats fast when I think about legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s lush masterpiece and self-proclaimed cinematic swan song. “Fanny and Alexander” won four Oscars in 1984 including Best Foreign Language film, but the movie is so visually beautiful and bursting with life — family, love, death, sex, religion, art — that unlike many of Bergman’s more opaque works about large abstract themes, its intimacy instantly translates to anyone with a pulse.

The sprawling tale of Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and her older brother Alexander (Bertil Guve) — 188 minutes, 60 speaking parts, and 1200 extras — weaves a spell from first frame to last. The deeply autobiographical story begins with 10 year old Alexander wandering through the richly appointed rooms of his grandmother’s house — like a stage set — and Bergman’s own memories. The rooms will soon be filled with the vivid and complex lives of the Swedish Ekdahl family and their servants who gather there on Christmas Eve 1907. (It’s also available on video in a 320 minute Swedish TV version.)

The scene is staggeringly sumptuous (Oscars for Sven Nykvist’s classically beautiful cinematography, as well as sets and costumes) room after room ablaze with candlelight, tables adorned with linen and silver, laden with Christmas presents and sweet treats. But more than anything, these rooms overflow with an almost pagan joy in the plenitude of family: aunts and uncles, cousins, parents– streaming in giddy with the warmth of the holiday, singing and dancing through the house, adults, children and servants alike. It’s a dream full of magic and joy.

In fact, Fanny and Alexander’s parents, Oscar and Emilie, run a theater troupe; the family business is acting, and so we see what Bergman is up to. Soon the “real-life” drama unfolds “Hamlet” like: Alexander’s father dies and his mother marries the handsome but diabolically usurping bishop who presided over her husband’s funeral. When Fanny, Alexander, and their mother move into the bishop’s brutally austere surroundings, it’s as if the light has gone out, the stone walls and barred windows emitting cold and death. These scenes are emotionally draining as we watch the children suffering at the hands of a monster. Where once there was sensuality and light, now there is rigid discipline and darkness. Where the servants in the Ekdahl family acted like nurturing family members, here they are spies plotting to punish and repress. Even Alexander’s mother –—the beautiful doll-eyed Ewa Froling — seems to have fallen under an evil spell.

Alexander, mesmerizingly played by 11 year old Bertil Guve, is a sensitive boy whose cherubic face masks a strong-will and a probing imagination. He comes in for particularly harsh treatment by his new stepfather (a cooly vicious Jan Malmsjo) who condemns his “lying” (story telling!) and demands strict adherence to the “truth.” But the “truth” in Bergman’s world is anything but static. In fact Alexander seems to see past surface reality and even glimpses the ghost of his father warning him of the danger he is in. Thus it is that Alexander’s artistic or “creative” impulses save him. This is later echoed in the mysterious help of an exotic family friend — Isak the Jewish merchant and Grandmother’s long ago lover (Erland Josephson) who guides him — and Bergman — home.

Every frame is packed with revealing detail: the children somersaulting through the parlor with abandon in the background of a scene on Christmas Eve; Alexander’s mother, like the Pieta cradling his beaten body. There is almost too much to take in– all of it meticulously composed.

Near the beginning of the movie, Alexander’s father confesses in a heartfelt speech to his fellow actors that he loves the playhouse, “this little world” that he hopes “succeeds in reflecting the big one so that we understand it a little better.” At the end of the movie Bergman echoes that sentiment by leaving us with a touching image of a child learning to find his way through the mysterious world: Alexander nestled safely back in his grandmother’s lap, listening as she reads aloud from Strindberg’s “A Dream Play:” “Time and space do not exist. On a flimsy framework of reality the imagination spins, weaving new patterns…”

In “Fanny and Alexander” Bergman has conjured all of that, a fantastic dream play in which we all see ourselves as actors, improvising our roles in an exuberant tragicomic drama of love, death, tragedy and triumph, wending our way through the sensual and spiritual world, and perhaps — with a little magic — putting some of our ghosts to rest.

“Fanny and Alexander” is at the Paramount Center’s Bright Family Screening Room (559 Washington St.) Saturday Feb. 2 at 1 p.m. Click here for the film schedule.

Joyce Kulhawik is an Emmy Award-winning journalist, President of the Boston Theater Critics Association and member of The Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read her reviews online at JoycesChoices.com.

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