Film buffs began this week greeting the news that two of our greatest artists had died. Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni lived to be 89 and 94, respectively, and were still making films until a couple of years ago. Their work had exerted such an influence over world cinema for over half a century that it is impossible to imagine film culture without them. Antonioni and Bergman made films about the human interior journey – the travels and travails of the soul. They were sometimes preoccupied with the fear that life had no meaning, and at times seemed desperate to produce cinema because the making of the films themselves were part of their own struggle for enlightenment.
Antonioni explored relationships and their impact on the soul – and he had an ultra-romantic view of women, who often appear as tempting goddesses in his work. His 1975 film The Passenger, starring Jack Nicholson (who pronounced it the greatest adventure he has ever had in filmmaking), is an observation of what happens when a man who seems to have a successful life decides to abandon it all in search of something different.
Bergman was more consciously religious – his most famous film is probably The Seventh Seal, in which a knight of the crusades is pursued by Death; they eventually play chess together in the ultimate existential competition. Bergman had a reputation for being pessimistic, once saying that he hoped not to die on a sunny day – a comment to which his greatest fan, Woody Allen, responded on hearing the news of his passing that he hoped the weather didn’t let him down. I think, however, that the charges leveled against Bergman miss the point – it is difficult to imagine that a person so committed to the investigation of what gives life meaning actually just wants it to be over.
It’s tempting to suggest that the deaths of Bergman and Antonioni represent the end of a certain kind of art film, perhaps the end of an era. We imagine the past producing a different type of movie, a different type of politics, a different type of celebrity and power. We don’t revere our great artists or public figures in the same way today partly because it’s much easier to become famous than it used to be. The bar of quality is set so much lower because we’ve all been told that we can too can be famous. Neither Ingmar Bergman nor Michelangelo Antonioni seemed happy to be publicly known. They just wanted to follow their vocation to make films, and get on with their lives.
There’s a lesson here for those of us who want to make a difference in the world but are striving to balance activism and the spiritual search. One of Antonioni’s last films, Beyond the Clouds, was a European pilgrimage made by a filmmaker played by John Malkovich, delicately shot to a soundtrack by U2 and Van Morrison, among others. It’s clear in this film that Antonioni had come to believe, and I imagine Bergman would agree, that for him the search for meaning in life, and the process of making a truthful work of art, amounted to the same thing. In this regard, Antonioni and Bergman’s legacy may seem obvious, but it’s a deeply important lesson: It is possible to do something great at the same time as not knowing all the answers.
Gareth Higgins is a Christian writer and activist in Belfast, Northern Ireland. For the past decade he was the founder/director of the zero28 project, an initiative addressing questions of peace, justice, and culture. He is the author of the insightful How Movies Helped Save My Soul and blogs at www.godisnotelsewhere.blogspot.com