Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #153
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Victor Sjostrom and Ingrid Thulin
It took five days, but today we're looking at a foreign film – a work from a seminal period in famed Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's long career. Wild Strawberries is a lush rumination on life, love and death that follows elderly physician Isak Borg on his way to accept an honorary degree in Lund, Sweden. Through a series of surreal-for-their-time dream sequences, Borg has revelations that allow him to peek into his past and show him the way he should be living his life. This is a Bergman movie, so there's plenty of symbolism to pick through (the pocket watch with no hands that appears in his first dream and again several more times, most notably when he visits his mother is particularly interesting) which, paired with gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, creates a "world of the film" which, while technically our own, is wholly unique and unfamiliar.
I've spoken with friends before about judging the acting in a movie shot in a language you don't speak, and it raises some very interesting questions. Particularly, vocal intonations are such a crucial part of the delivery of lines that, if you don't understand what's being said and aren't familiar with the way native speakers talk, is completely lost on you. Still, dubs are thought to be the bane of the true film fan's existence. We'd rather take four years of college-level Swedish than hear an English dub of a Swedish film. So we're stuck. We have to watch the performances closely, try to gather what we can from context and body language and go from there. Having some training in Swedish films (I had seen Bergman's The Seventh Seal as well as the greatest vampire picture ever made, Let the Right One In – both present elsewhere in the Top 250 – prior to watching Wild Strawberries), I was perhaps somewhat better able to decipher the quality of the performances. For people who have seen the movie, it probably goes without saying, but I'll say it: Victor Sjostrom's performance at Dr. Borg is nothing short of brilliant. The rest of the cast does a beautiful job as well, but I would love to speak Swedish just so I could appreciate Sjostrom's performance even more. He is at once tragic and heroic, and his trips through his dreams feature some of the best confused-person-trapped-in-surreal-sequence acting I've ever seen. And I've seen a lot.
Of course, it shouldn't come as a surprise that this movie makes the list. Among foreign directors, Ingmar Bergman sits on a lofty top-tier perch with only Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini for company. He is a rightful legend with the critical acclaim to prove it. Compared to his other film that I've seen, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries feels like a deeply personal movie for him, one that no doubt resonated even more strongly with him when he was in his own life's winter. I still remember the day I read the news that he passed away. I wasn't very familiar with his work; in fact, I knew only that he directed the great "knight plays chess with Death" scene. But I knew it was an important loss for international cinema, and I mourned just the same. Now, watching Wild Strawberries, I hope only that he heeded his own film's message and made meaningful connections with those around him and forgave those who had wronged him. It feels so personal when his character does the same that I imagine he must have. If his screenplay here is to be believed, Mr. Bergman must have been a wonderful person to know. May he rest in peace, and may God – depending on which character's side he takes in the atheism-versus-religion debate he scripted for this film – have mercy on his soul.
The Good: The cinematography is pure eye candy. Color would have ruined this movie. Speaking of eye candy, it's official: Swedish women are the most beautiful women in the world. Whereas the American and British standard for beauty changes so often that femme fatales from fifteen-year-old movies look like they belong in ancient high school yearbooks, Swedish women in 1957 looked much like they do today. That is, drop dead gorgeous.
The Bad: Despite a brief 91-minute running time, the pacing sometimes makes the movie drag. This is as much because it's from 1957 as anything else, though, and can be easily forgiven.
The Skinny: Deserves to be in the Top 250, and is probably right about where it belongs within the list.