There are moments in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries where you become so enthralled by an image that you want to dwell on it, until you realize that there are so many such moments that to do so would be to stop at practically every scene in the film. The sheer technical and visual skill that Bergman shows here is unsurprising, insofar as we ought to expect this from him, but it is dazzling, even when it is displayed in a film that, on the surface, has a rather tame premise. An old man, Professor Isak Borg (played to perfection by Victor Sjöström), is driving to Lund, where he is to be honoured. His son's wife, and three spirited young people, two men and a woman, accompany him. They also pick up an utterly depressed couple along the way, only to drop them off when they begin to fight. Interspersed with the present actions are the old man's dreams, and flashbacks to his youth.
Out of this material, Bergman crafts a wonderful and touching film about redemption. There is always a tendency to marvel at how an atheist like Bergman can be so deeply involved with religious issues, but many atheists, of course, are atheists precisely as a result of such deep involvement. I don't know enough about Bergman's views on religion to comment on his attitude towards God and religion beyond the basics. What is important, at any rate, is that this film is one in which an old man is redeemed from a miserably lonely and empty existence through contact with others. This is a deeply humanistic view of redemption, and one which is firmly grounded in reality.
The film begins with the professor telling us that he has distanced himself from others, because he has shunned human relationships. This has left him feeling empty and alone. The man we see seems nice enough, until we learn from his son's wife, who speaks frankly to him, how this self-imposed exilic state has rendered him selfish and aloof. Through flashbacks and the dream sequences, we learn enough about his life to chart his progress: when young, the girl he loved, Sara, chose his brother over him. The professor married, but the marriage was a bad one; his wife cheated on him, but it apparently did nothing for him. To her, as she states in one of the dream sequences, he was " cold as ice". The professor, therefore, is old, lonely, and has an empty existence.
How does one find oneself out of that miserable situation? There are three means through which the old man is redeemed. Firstly, the dream sequences serve to warn him of death, which, considering that the man is 78, could come any day. The dream sequences also point out to him just how detached he is from other human beings. In a fantastic scene, he is given a test, which he fails. The point is clear enough: he might be a professor and doctor, but that is nothing if he does not have an understanding of human beings, their emotions and feelings. Secondly, the flashbacks serve to remind him of a time when he was connected with others, as well as of times when he was disconnected from his wife and others. The beautiful scenes of his childhood are marvelously retold, with everyone well dressed in white, and the entire family engaging with each other. Only he is absent, standing in the dark at the threshold, an old man staring at the happy ghosts of the past mingling before him. Lastly, the three young people the professor meets, especially the wonderful Sonia, connect with him on a deeply emotional and innocent level. The girl looks like, and has the same name as, the Sonia who rejected the professor in favour of his brother when he was young. You can interpret this in any way you like, but I think it's obvious that we see here a kind of second chance. In the car, the professor asks Sonia which of the two young men she likes the most. She does not answer firmly. At the end of the film, as the three bid him goodbye, she tells the professor that she loves him the most of all. He brushes it off, but once he gets in bed, there is a great smile on his face. The smile no doubt is a reaction to the whole day's events, but I'm certain that one big reason for his happiness at the end is that Sonia finally chose him, after having rejected him so long ago.
What is the overall message of this film? As with all great films, there is no one right answer. What is certain, however, is that Bergman gives us a view of the world that is neither wholly pessimistic nor wholly optimistic, because it is so painfully real. The characters in this film have been bruised. They are broken, and seek a way out of their situation. There is no indication in the film that Bergman suggests that a solution will solve all the problems. Rather, any change for the better can only come once we engage with the past. Through an understanding of our past and our self, we can add a new sense of our self to what the past given. If we can achieve that, through whatever means necessary, then we can be redeemed. In fact, that understanding of ourselves is itself a kind of redemption. Bergman's world is one in which hope is always possible. It can happen to an unsuspecting 78 year old man, and it can happen to us. It is never too late. Every day in our life is a new chance to make something better of ourselves.
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