'The Magician' Has Many Ideas Cooking, But Not All Are Fully Baked and Ready for Consumption

The Magician fits in a niche among Ingmar Bergman's underrated works, examining religious folklore, magic, and the palpable tensions that seethe between the old pagan ways and the new world's rigid Christian order.

The Magician

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Max Von Sydow, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Erland Josephson, Bibi Andersson, Naima Wifstrad, Birgitta Petersson
Distributor: Criterion
Release Date: 2010-10-12

Attempting to assess the placement of The Magician in iconic Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman's overall canon is a difficult task. Arriving in an in-between moment for the director – in 1958 – the film had the perhaps unfortunate distinction of following a one-two wallop in 1957 from The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, films that historians now regard as two of Bergman's finest overall. Many of these same historians would cite The Magician as second-tier work from the auteur, a film that packs neither the punch of his existential epics of the late-'50s nor the raw, lean muscle of his '60s oeuvre that represented a marked stylistic departure from his past work.

While The Magician never quite finds its way to masterpiece status – a title reserved for Bergman's other notable works such as Persona (1966) or Cries and Whispers (1972) -- it does find a niche among his underrated works of this period, which examine religious folklore, magic, and the palpable tensions that seethe between the old pagan ways and the new world's rigid Christian order. There is a dark kinship between The Magician and other Bergman films that explore the pastoral and the macabre such as The Devil's Eye (1960) and The Virgin Spring (1960). All of these films hover somewhere in between the worlds of the living and the dead that seem to at least somewhat peacefully coexist in the remote, bucolic medieval Swedish countryside.

The original Swedish title is Ansiktet, which means "the face", and Bergman is nothing if not a master of capturing "the face" in poignant, often aching close-up. In The Magician, he chooses to focus on mysteriously lighting Max Von Sydow's title character, shading his statuesque features with hard black and white lines to create a sense of supernatural torment, while Granny (Naima Wifstrand) is lit to chill in her storytelling scenes. Though Manda/Mr. Aman (Ingrid Thulin) gets a few great close-ups, the real drawn of this character is the interesting gender role which he/she gets to play: professionally, Manda passes for an androgynous man, while in private, in the bed chamber, she lets her golden hair down and wears negligees (for the most impactful Bergman/Thulin close-up, please see Winter Light [1962]).

It's interesting to note that this gender-bending/soft-butch theme would later be explored even more fully by Bergman and Thulin with her role as Ester in The Silence (1963). Also of note is the continuity and referencing of other Bergman films, particularly the surname "Vogler" – a name that haunts the cinema of the great director from Persona's mute actress (Liv Ullmann) to 2000's Faithless' tormented Marianne (Lena Endre) to Thulin as the ghostly Veronica Vogler in 1968's Hour of the Wolf (in 2008, director Noah Baumbach references the name again in his Bergmanesque Margot at the Wedding, naming the mysterious, dangerous neighbors "Vogler").

Von Sydow and Thulin were a part of the core Bergman troupe, but equally essential to the success of the troupe, and of The Magician overall, are company stalwarts Bibi Andersson (Persona, Scenes from a Marriage, Gunnar Björnstrand (Smiles of a Summer Night, Through a Glass Darkly, Erland Josephson (Hour of the Wolf, The Passion of Anna, and Birgitta Petersson (The Virgin Spring). The ensemble works in Bergman's milieu like a perfectly-oiled machine, navigating a tricky, moody tone where broad comedy must be played in direct juxtaposition with legal intrigues, sex, melodrama, and questions of faith.

Indeed, The Magician has many ideas cooking, but not all of them come out fully baked and ready for consumption. Whether this is a positive or a negative is a tough call. Leaving something to the imagination of the viewer is admirable, but throwing everything but the kitchen sink at them and expecting them to cook a four-star meal with the ingredients is another animal altogether. The confused tones and flavors indicate that perhaps Bergman too may have felt a bit lost in the material and couldn't pinpoint exactly where he wanted to go.

Though the focus is occasionally blurry (perhaps even murky), second tier Bergman is still far superior to the outright dreck of most contemporary film directors and the mis en scène is purposeful and evocative, as always with Bergman. In this mini-period between his stylistic departure in 1961 with Through a Glass Darkly, where he switched from epics to insular chamber dramas and began a life-long partnership with one of the world's finest cinematographers of all time Sven Nykvist (who worked on Bergman's films beginning in 1960), Bergman experimented with familiar visual tones and themes, honing his craft, perfecting what he was already adept at executing.

The Magician might not have a revolutionary spirit like Shame (1968) or the twisted classical refinement Autumn Sonata (1978), but what it succeeds in doing is conjuring an alternately disturbing and sumptuous atmosphere that is unmistakably "Bergman" – the film is a building block, a cornerstone of the great things that were about to come. As such, it remains completely relevant to his body of work, if not as important as some of his landmarks, and Criterion's treatment of the film is, as usual, first-rate with a stunning high-definition transfer that is rife with impeccable details and black and white lines so sharp they practically cut.

The remaining extras, including an Olivier Assayas essay and a rare television interview with Bergman, are a bit more of a mixed bag in comparison to the deliciousness found in other Criterion-sanctioned Bergman goodies and don't lend any particularly keen insights that would aid in understanding The Magician. Still, kudos must be given to the company for its continuing commitment to releasing the Bergman catalog on a consistent basis.

Now can we finally have the never-released-to-DVD Face to Face, please?


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.