Last night I rewatched a film I’d seen many years ago, back in Boston. Back then, the only prints available of Ingmar Bergman’s The Shame were on video cassette, and very poor quality. I saw it in a university screening room, a crappy print projected on the screen with terrible audio. However, The Shame held me transfixed.
Like most well-known Bergman fare, it’s neither a lighthearted comedy nor simple drama. It occurs during wartime on an island, where a married couple, once violinists before “the Philharmonic” was disbanded, live a simple country life, growing vegetables to sell in the village. But then an army invades the island, to “liberate” it from the enemy, and then that force is beaten back by the occupying army. (These action scenes are exceptionally well done, particularly when one thinks of the long silent shots that punctuate most Bergman films.) What follows is a psycho-sexual power game between the couple, as well as with an army officer who uses his power to get what he wants from Liv Ullmann.
As exptected, Liv and co-star Max von Sydow are exceptional, as is Gunnar Bjornstrand as the officer, and the uncovering of each character’s true selves is done without sentiment, leaving the viewer with a bleak (though to me, curiously inexplicable) final scene of the couple with other refugees floating aimlessly in a boat to their deaths.
But what struck me most deeply as I rewatched this half-remembered film was that the armies in question, as well as the nation, are unnamed. Even the political ideologies in conflict are not touched upon. And that’s when I realized that the books I write, while being influenced by many different things, were motivated in large part by this film—in particular, my use of a fictional country.
In the end I bring this up only to suggest to anyone out there should see The Shame if they haven’t—it should be their next rental or purchase. Unlike other works from his ouvre, the conflicts here are external, making it easily accessible, but no less powerful than that other, more famous, and equally brilliant, “island film”—Persona.
So if you’ve seen The Shame, drop a comment below so people don’t have to go by my word alone. And if you saw it and didn’t like it, let me know why. It’s a film worth discussing.
(Originally posted at the Contemporary Nomad)