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An ageing professor travels with his daughter-in-law to receive an honorary degree. A journey of self-discovery and redemption, and an uncharacteristically warm tale from Ingmar Bergman
Ingmar Bergman is famed for his pessimism and a wryly ironic attitude, which frequently dissolves into anguish and despair. Bergman films are hardly universal fare and they're ludicrously at odds with multiplex values. It's doubly ironic, then, that Wild Strawberries, if it were to suffer the indignities of a remake, could easily be turned into superior Hollywood feelgood material. Woody Allen paid extensive homage to it in Deconstructing Harry, another story of a world weary highbrow returning to his alma mater.
Wild Strawberries is the story of an ageing doctor, Professor Isak Borg (a wonderful performance from Victor Sjöström), who describes himself, frankly, as an old pedant with no need or time for other people. Off the cuff, he decides to drive nine hours to a ceremony where he will be honoured for his lifelong devotion to medicine. He's accompanied on the journey by his daughter-in-law, Marianne (Thulin), who makes no secret of her dislike for the icy, empty and self-satisfied Isak.
The story, always laden with symbolism, flashes back from Isak's troubled present to his youth, and shifts between dreams and reality. At Marianne's prompting, and with the help of a trio of young people he picks up en route, Isak considers his life choices, revisiting the early disappointments and betrayals that conspired to make him who he is.
Delightfully, Isak acts on this new self-knowledge, opening himself up to the world after so many years of icy disengagement. This is hardly the stock Bergman unhappy ending, although it's worth remembering he was adept at comedy, as shown in Smiles Of A Summer Night, among others. But the warm-heartedness of the story makes it tremendously accessible, and the story never spills over into sentimentality.
Read reviews of other Ingmar Bergman films screening on Film4 from 4th to 17th July 2011 Go to TV listings
The relentless symbolism, and some rather heavy-handed dream sequences are off-putting at times, but Wild Strawberries has enough sorrow, warmth and profundity to make for sophisticated and rewarding viewing.
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