English Title: The Magician
Original Title: Ansiktet
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director/Writer: Ingmar Bergman
Music: Erik Nordgren
Cinematography: Gunnar Fischer
Max von Sydow
Labeled by IMDB as a comedy, a genre one could ever relate to Bergman’s school by the narrowest of margins, this is THE MAGICIAN, Bergman’s atypical abandon in conspiratorial ridicule of the dialectic face-off between science and occult, but to what end?
A bandwagon transports the troupe of Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theater to a unspecific town where a spectacle is booked, but the group’s practice is challenged by Dr. Vergerus (Björnstrand), the Minister of Health, who resolves to debunk their act as pure hocus-pocus. The gauntlet is thrown down, Albert Vogler (von Sydow), the head of the troupe, takes it up with fortitude and selective muteness. It appears that a complacent Dr. Vergerus has the drop on the frozen-out troupe, but a consequential skulduggery is in the pipeline aiming to turn the table and Bergman really jumps the shark to ensure that to happen in its money shot, which takes place inside a locked attic, where Dr. Vergerus gets spooked by an apparently resurrected Albert, although audience is tipped off well in advance. These sequences are rendered with striking chiaroscuro contrast and perturbing foley effect, in lieu of the usual reaction shots of screaming and panicking, Björnstrand imbues a divine flair of restraint into the moment, wavering between being soundly startled and trying to recollect himself at any rate.
Essentially, this is an ensemble piece, schematic vignettes limning human interactions in sometimes frivolous (the love potion gimmick and its knock-on are too tongue-in-cheek to suspend our disbelief), sometimes gnomic (the usual apparition of a witch-like Naima Wifstrand as Albert’s garrulous granny verges on being goosebump-inducing) manners, but there is no emphatic through-line to connect all the dots, it is merely a menagerie of grotesque characters, tainted by their heterogeneous foibles and quirks.
Mr. von Sydow brings about a sharp presence through the dichotomy of a man’s camouflage and realness (especially by dint of his soul-stirring gaze and stoic looks), and Ingrid Thulin beautifully gets worked up as the intrepid wife of Albert with a gimlet eye. In addition, Bengt Ekerot (the iconic Death himself in THE SEVENTH SEAL 1957, 8.4/10) has a short but critical role as a dying actor succumbing to alcoholism, greatly ignites the screen whenever popping up with his self-destructive yakking, to a rather poignant effect.
Profoundly immersing oneself into this aesthetically captivating picture of Bergmanesque hallmark (camerawork, art production and their paraphernalia are all first-rate and enthralling to behold) amalgamated with a willfully flippant approach in its narrative, one might tend to be simultaneously attracted and grated, the larger-than-life philosophy which it has been dwelling on eventually comes off as nebulous and scattershot, but undeniably, THE MAGICIAN can also be deemed as a hard-earned fan’s favourite because at least for once, Bergman lets up a bit his sharp-edged perspicacity and indoctrination, and salts this escapade-like fable with a dash of nonchalance and slyness.