Swede and natural

Kicking off with three from Ingmar Bergman, Mondavi Center’s new film series begins with the best

Bengt Ekerot as Death in <i>The Seventh Seal</i>.

Bengt Ekerot as Death in The Seventh Seal.

It is widely held that we measure human civilization by the cultural wealth of our cities, and that we measure our cities by their repertory film series, at which espresso-addled film buffs huddle together parsing the finer points of Swedish cinema titan Ingmar Bergman and sit experiencing his films in the intimate darkness.

Sure, libraries are important. Performance halls. Elegant, artful restaurants. But if you don’t have, somewhere, a movie theater showing Bergman films once in a while, and the aliens finally come down and ask you to account for yourself and your species, well, then what are you going to do? Denizens of the Sacramento region have had to make it their reluctant plan to answer such interrogations by nodding sheepishly westward down Interstate 80 and begging for intergalactic mercy.

Until now, that is. Now, we have a new film series, the kind of thing for which we’d expect to have to schlep down to Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive but in fact needn’t travel any further than Davis.

“It feels to me, surprisingly, like we’re filling a need in the community,” says Mondavi Center executive director Don Roth of his plan, in association with UC Davis’ film-studies program, to make film a regular feature of the center’s programming. “Film is the great form that developed in the 20th century. For a performing-arts center today, it should be a part of what we’re doing.”

Bergman directs Harriet Andersson in <i>Smiles of a Summer Night</i>.

How better to begin than with a retrospective series of three movies by the late Swedish master himself, screened on consecutive Monday evenings in the plush, acoustically excellent, presumably seismically stable comfort of the Mondavi Center’s Studio Theatre? Some purists might not consider this the authentic film-repertory experience: The room is clean, the seats don’t destroy your back, etc. But, of course, what really matters is the Bergman.

First up on the 25th at 7 p.m. is The Magic Flute, his astonishing film (from 1975) of Mozart’s astonishing opera (from 1791), a work of such fluency that you’ll think the original was written in Swedish. It wasn’t. That’s just how Bergman commands the material. In fact, his translation of “magic flute” is something along the lines of “cold, despondent instrument by which a lone, naked man gathers the hollow wind blowing through our doomed souls.” No, no. That’s not true. See, you think Bergman, you think dour, dark, dreary, right? Fair enough. Nobody does dour, dark and dreary like this guy. But that’s not all he does. And this film isn’t like that at all. It spills over with life and humor and a love of theatricality, not to mention some extraordinary music. It is one of the most spirited adaptations ever put to the screen, a great treat.

Next, the following week, is 1957’s The Seventh Seal, in which the mighty Max von Sydow plays a medieval knight who returns home from crusading to discover his faith eroded, his homeland devastated by plague and Death willing to indulge him in a game of chess. And that’s just the beginning. Yeah, we got your dour, dark and dreary right here. Plus: spiritual inquiry, moral rigor, moving characterization and unforgettable visuals.

Swedish moppets relish the buoyancy of <i>The </i>Magic Flute.

“If you’re going to do only three Bergman films, you just can’t leave that one out,” Roth says. “I did watch it again. It’s amazingly good. Boy, that is a film that really holds up.” But of course it holds up. It’s The Seventh Seal, a masterpiece, arguably as good as cinema gets.

And on March 17, do not miss 1955’s Smiles of a Summer Night, a turn-of-the-century bedroom farce about three couples spending a weekend in the country. You know where this is going. Well, you think you do. Like a good dessert, Bergman’s classic comedy combines exquisite richness with surprising lightness. It’s funny, sexy, pitiless but humane, with a Shakespearean flair for orchestrating the dramatics of lovers’ loyalties.

Finally, you’ll have something to tell the judgmental extraterrestrials. Perhaps the most precious beauty in Bergman’s movies is the way public screenings of them still make us feel so civilized.