Arts & Events

Illusion and Rationalism: Ingmar Bergman's "The Magician"

Wednesday October 27, 2010 - 11:24:00 AM

There's no mistaking the Bergman touch. One only needs to see a few frames of The Magician and his style is instantly recognizable.  

A medicine show troupe is traveling by carriage, silhouetted against the sky as a pair of horses strains to pull it up a hill. Stark imagery of a crown, of barren branches, of expressive and mysterious faces quickly set the tone. The Magician (1958) is, as its title suggests, an illusory experience; magic and mystery — not to mention Bergman's characteristic blend of doom, gloom and good humor — suffuse every scene, and the audience is left in the dark through much of it.  

A mute magician has come to town with a company of compelling freaks in tow. Vogler (Max von Sydow), in his top hat and patently false beard, would appear to have a great deal to hide. And what about his assistant (Ingrid Thulin), who, though she may masquerade as a man, barely attempts to conceal her feminine beauty? Once they arrive they are subjected to the amused and outraged skepticism of Dr. Vergérus (Gunnar Björnstrand), whose strident rationalism doesn't allow him to conceal his contempt for the motley medicine troupe and its ridiculous parlor tricks.  

The troupe endures a series of investigations and humiliations that culminates in a virtuoso sequence in which the impotentt illusionist finally regains a bit of his magical mojo, staging a trick both terrifying and illuminating. Bergman himself confirmed that the film was to some extent inspired by his own experience of the relationship between artist and critic, and in this gripping scene the artist drives home his point with flair and fury. 

Criterion's DVD edition of the film includes a visual essay by noted film critic and historian Peter Cowie; a 1967 interview with Bergman in which he discusses the genesis of the film; insightful essays on Bergman and The Magician by critic Geoff Andrew and filmmaker Oliver Assayas; and a 1990 audio interview with Bergman by Assayas and Stig Björkman. 


The Magician (1958). 101 minutes. $39.95.