Our sympathies to Marie Nyreröd’s Bergman Island, a feature that finds itself discourteously upstaged by the short film screening before it. Shot at Ingmar Bergman’s home on the bleak Baltic island of Faro, where the 88-year-old Swedish auteur has lived in near solitude for decades, Nyreröd’s documentary takes an appropriately somber and quiet tone, and Bergman displays his surprising talents as an often mordant conversationalist, recounting his decision to live on Faro after shooting Through a Glass Darkly there, his numerous and overlapping love affairs, and his desire now to be alone, in silence with his internal “demons.” But as little more than an extended interview, it remains hobbled by determinedly uninspired cinematography and a mundane televisual setup. Island is less a work of cinema itself than mere content-delivery system, and its aesthetic shortcomings reveal themselves all the more starkly when viewed in the wake of Guy Maddin’s My Dad Is 100 Years Old, a micro-doc packing more intoxicating beauty and invigorating ideas into its 17 minutes than most other films do in 90 or more.
Produced for the centenary of Roberto Rossellini’s birth, My Dad Is 100 Years Old stars his daughter Isabella Rossellini, who also penned the script and previously figured in Maddin’s Sternbergian tuner The Saddest Music in the World. Like Maddin’s even briefer 2000 showstopper The Heart of the World, Dad is an exquisite and playful pastiche of cinema’s lost golden age, rendered with the Winnipeg wizard’s wonder cabinet of archaic effects: billowing smoke, jittering title cards, expressionist lighting, characters who wander through as loose and luminous back-projections.
Isabella Rossellini appears not only as herself, pondering whether her father’s films were “ridiculous or sublime,” but also in intergenerational drag as her father’s contemporaries, drawn as broadly as a set of Hirschfeld caricatures. As Hitchcock, Isabella lurks in shadowy profile with potbelly and extended lower lip; her Fellini appears trench-coated and scarved. More poignantly, Isabella plays her own mother, Ingrid Bergman, who materializes as a
towering movie goddess, smiling down lovingly from the big screen, her face framed in a glowing white Marian headscarf.
Roberto himself takes part, as nothing but a fat naked belly, jiggling as he intones uncompromising manifestos for the ethical demands of cinema. His voice—also provided by Isabella—seems to emerge from his cavernous navel. Compared in Isabella’s narration to a pregnant male seahorse, Roberto is reimagined as both the fecund mother of modern cinema and the strict father who sought to impose its limits. His arguments with contemporaries, here staged within a decaying movie theater, become battles for the soul of cinema itself. Thanks to Maddin’s visual humor, the old chestnut of Art versus Entertainment becomes a freshly engaging philosophical tussle.
But Hitchcock and Fellini aren’t the only directors who counter Rossellini. Maddin too argues against his credo, not through words, but by example. As many
other critics have noted, Maddin’s own cinematic style is the antithesis of Rossellini’s.
Whereas the progenitor of neorealism sought to embody truth by pushing narrative cinema as close to raw documentary as possible, Maddin embraces the surface glamour of Hollywood’s most sugary productions: musicals and melodramas, with hokey fairy-tale effects and careening camera angles. Both attempt opposite but equally quixotic struggles for artistic purity. Rossellini argues that filmmaking must be purged of all artifice, while Maddin wishes to remove almost everything but. Yet by showcasing a sequence from Rome, Open City in which soldiers gun down Anna Magnani’s character, Maddin shows that he and Rossellini share a love for melodrama, whether gussied up with pasteboard sets or brutally realistic grit.