Two art-house titans died this past Monday, and it’s tempting to make a crack about how movies should be much happier now without Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman around. Point taken: These were two moody sons of bitches. Theirs often were works of borderline-unbearable silence and emptiness and austerity. But they gave the world abundance. They did what great artists should, which is to increase the appetite for life. What movies will be without them is dumber and less sincere. That’s what’s bleak.
Combined obituaries shouldn’t overstress their creative kinship, but it’s fair to say they had common interests. Both were pitiless, rigorous, staunchly against sentimentality. Both turned their unblinking gazes straight toward the deepest, most disturbing spiritual crisis of all: the human failure to communicate.
Antonioni, the Italian, wasn’t partial to a Mediterranean disposition; he could be grim enough to pass for Nordic. Barren and blank, his lingering, maddeningly laconic post-neorealist films dwelled in deserts and traded in what he himself called “spiritual aridity.” In the arguably quintessential Antonioni film, L’Avventura, a woman goes missing on an island yachting trip; her idle-class lover and best friend eventually lose interest in looking for her and instead start a shallow affair. Brr.
The actually Nordic Bergman, a Swede—well, he made movies with titles like Torment, Shame, Winter Light, and Cries and Whispers. Which did not diminish the warmth in masterworks like Wild Strawberries, or Fanny and Alexander, or his exquisite adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, among many others.
Antonioni stands among the greats, Bergman among the greatest; where the former kept his distance, the latter had the audacity to go in close. Next to what Bergman could do with only a human face, every other trick of movie technology, every other formal and political posture, still seems callow and gimmicky. How bravely he reduced cinema’s inherent grandeur to a series of confessions: Whether to God or a lover didn’t matter; it’s the intimacy that endures.