The Rite (Ingmar Bergman, 1969)

by January 6, 2019 8 minutes (1782 words) 35mm Cinémathèque québécoise, part of the ‘Bergman 2: Dreams and Torments” program

‘… I’ve grown tired of our so-called artistry. I no longer believe in what we’re doing. I think we’re meaningless, disgusting, absurd.’

- Cabaret performer Hans Winkelmann (Gunnar Björnstrand)

‘I’m my own god. I supply my own angels and demons.’

-Cabaret performer Sebastian Fisher (Anders Ek)

‘The really great artists can’t be hurt. I’m not one of them.’

-Winkleman (Björnstrand)

‘My lawyer knows more about it than I do.’

-Fisher (Ek), about the various children he supports

Bergman in interview discussing The Rite:

Interviewer: ‘How can you keep your aggressions so alive?’

Bergman: If I didn’t I’d commit suicide. There’s always a tension in me between my urge to destroy and my will to live. It’s one of my most elementary tensions, both in the way I create and in my material existence. Every morning I wake up with a new wrath, a new suspiciousness, and new desire to live.’

An officious judge (Erik Hell) in an unknown country interrogates and provokes, both together and apart, three angst-ridden (is there any other kind in a Berman film?) long-time actors in a shared cabaret act — the despairing Hans Winkleman, his emotionally terrified wife Thea (Ingrid Thulin) and the volatile alcoholic (and open lover of Thea) Sebastian Fischer — as part of what starts as an investigation into whether the performing troupe committed a pornographic act that they could be fined for, and soon descends into soul bearing sessions of the deepest shame and cruelty for each of them, including the judge himself.

Perhaps it was the quick nature of how The Rite came about, with Bergman just a few weeks off from shooting his harrowing look at moral disintegration during an unknown war called Shame (one of his many masterpieces), quickly turning around and writing, then shooting (in nine-days) this 70 plus minute, low budget television production, with its sparse, severe interior setting (nine scenes, all set within confined nondescript spaces), that led to it being seemingly even more searing and confessional than the already (by that point) strip-me-raw-and bare-my-soul Bergman presentation. When you account for the fact that he had only a few years earlier quit in disgust (at the critics, the bureaucracy, the audiences, all of it) as head of the Royal Dramatic Theater, fought tax evasion charges for years that eventually had him fleeing Sweden and had fathered a staggering nine children with six different women (no wonder the guy was working all the time – just considering the sheer mountain of monthly alimony and child support payments he must have faced, of which I know a bit about myself, spins me into terror), it becomes easier to see how such a quick, bare-bones effort such as The Rite, in the hands of Bergman, would lead him to an almost direct open emotional venting of his frustrations through his characters (he likely personally has said, at one time or another, or at least thought, every one of those dialogue lines he has his cabaret characters above – and throughout — deliver in the film).

Bergman basically took the template of his 1958 film The Magician (also playing as part of this series, which I can’t wait to see again), in which the disapproving governing officials of a small town demand a private performance from a small travelling troupe and its head magician, played by that eternally old soul of an actor Max Von Sydow, named Vogler (another one of those Bergman character names, like Winkleman in The Rite, that is used again and again, as if the entire Bergman oeuvre – films and the equally prolific plays — is one swirling continuous mask of pretence and actor makeup, barely concealing the angst and existential terror and cruelty of the storyteller abiding over all of it) to try and expose their claims of presenting true magic as the work of charlatans, and stripped down the setting and characters (while building in a cacophonous and disturbing score of string instruments being ripped at) leaving only a confessional interplay and reveal of the seething resentments between performers, performer and audience, and ultimately, each with performance itself.

With the narrative consisting of four actors (and one silent cameo, by Bergman himself), within the sparsest of sets, with the characters often delivering long confessional monologues and Bergman utilizing the close up even more than usual, The Rite could be looked at as one of the basest examples of what many critics have dismissed the director’s work as being – that is, the direction of filmed plays rather than cinematic experiences (interestingly, admitted Bergman-protégé Woody Allen has often been dismissed, but of something slightly differently – namely, of being a director of ‘talking heads’ — which is equally as absurd as the Bergman charge, with Allen being one of the greatest of modern American filmmakers who, like Bergman, often has the boldness of, and experimentation within, his filmmaking underappreciated). It’s in the brilliant compositions and the angst ridden performances, creating tensions, conflict and a sense of existential alienation between characters, that has always consistently given Bergman a position at the table with the international cinematic masters… and he brings the same skill to the forefront in The Rite.

It’s true Bergman would never have been able to create the masterful epics of, say, the Russian great Andrei Tarkovsky (one obvious reason being Bergman’s consistent ineptness at capturing action – even Shame, which is near the top of a vast lot of favourites of mine, has some extremely awkwardly staged scenes of invading foreign soldiers – fortunately, in small doses, these moments become part of a an acceptable aesthetic, but if played out longer, wouldn’t hold up), but Tarkovsky could never do what Bergman does (as proven in the Russian filmmaker’s final film, _ The Sacrifice_ in which he was clearly trying to make a ‘Bergman film’, to the point of using Bergman’s long-time cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, and instead created his by far weakest film).

From the very opening shots of The Rite, Bergman (cinematically) presents his theme, as well as lays the narrative’s foundation. The first image (after Bergman’s usual simple white credits over black – a later standard of Woody Allen as well – only this time accompanied by that disturbingly jagged string score) is a close up of the stern looking judge looking directly into camera (at us). He takes off his glasses and picks up a magnifying glass, still staring at us, his eye rendered grotesquely large, and then – suddenly – we’re switched to the judge’s point of view, with us going from being stared at by, then suddenly sharing the perspective of, the interrogator as he glimpses, shuffling them away, one by one, the photos of the three performers he will soon be interrogating. It’s simple, yet brilliant.

Bergman constantly loved to experiment (as would Woody Allen) with the cinematic form, both narratively and visually, and The Rite is no different. While one of the nine chapters ends with the horrified Thea and Winkelman barging in on Fisher in the act of self-immolation, with the flames consuming him, the next chapter starts with all of them together again before the judge, with no explanation (pretty amazing stuff for a television movie!).

I don’t know what court system from what country this is, but it doesn’t seem to bare any reality, other than as an allegorical representation for the feelings of the audience, and the critics (at least in Bergman’s mind). Their existences are inextricably linked to the art that defines them, destructively enabling each other, be they spectator in awe (and corresponding resentment) or performer hating those he relies on for a validation he often doesn’t get (and despising himself for needing it). They’re all playing parts and hiding dark truths they will eventually confess to, even the judge. There is an enabling relationship that none can escape from, and each secretly – or in contest with another — wishes the death of the other.

The characters in The Rite, as in so much of Bergman’s world, are so horrifyingly aware of the existential emptiness of existence (say that ten times fast) they’re only really able to communicate through cruelty, and they suffer deep shame and humiliation because of it, rendered to soul-bearing confessionals in a desperate attempt to rid themselves of the suffering (in the case of The Rite, doing it jarringly and powerfully directly into the camera, as they confess to the judge, and the judge in turn confesses to a foreboding, mute Catholic Priest – fittingly – and darkly comically — played by none other than Bergman himself).

Bergman uses three of his regulars in the roles of the acting troupe and, as usual, they don’t come close to disappointing. Gunnar Björnstrand, there from Bergman’s first films all the way up into an ailing cameo in Bergman’s last theatrical feature Fanny and Alexander, is his usually fascinating self. For an actor who carried himself with such an unmistakeably dignified comportment, it was amazing how much range (as well as wonderful comic timing in Bergman’s earlier films) he displayed over his career. The always fascinating Ingrid Thulin is strikingly different than the other women the director used again and again – Eva Dahlbeck in the early days, Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, Liv Ullman – in that she comes across as more damaged, even creepy, with an unusual edge of perversity showing through (the very characteristics, along with a playing up of androgyny, that made her perfect for art-house naziploitation forerunners like Tinto Brass’ epic Salon Kitty and Luchino Visconti’s The Damned), which might explain why there’s never been any stories of Bergman having an affair with Thulin. Anders Ek, with a face too severe for a leading man, but fascinating as that of a character actor, was in the least of the Bergman films of the three, but has always stood out when there, with the unique way he contorts, presenting emotional pain as twistingly physical.

The weakest part of the film, the least dynamic and interestingly shot (and that’s even with the large prop penises the two men wear as part of their costumes and Thulin’s exposed nipples – Bergman was definitely rocking with the changing times) is the rite itself, in which the three actors present a performance response of condemnation against the judge, who has been rendered weak and emotionally small. Then again, in a film in which the pageantry of performance is argued – by the director himself — to be meaningless, perhaps it makes sense that the rite, with the actors ‘performing’, would be the least effective part.

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