The Rite Review

During the course of the 1960s, Ingmar Bergman’s work became increasingly hermetic. That’s not to say that the huge, metaphysical themes of The Seventh Seal or The Virgin Spring are abandoned; quite the contrary. The examination of the implications of a cruel universe becomes more and more specific until a series of films, beginning with Persona in 1965, present the theme in terms of the impact it has on small groups of people in a confined situation. Best known are the ‘Island’ films - Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, The Passion of Anna - but the most extreme example is The Rite, made for Swedish television in 1969. It’s a difficult, somewhat chilly film but it has the advantage of refining some very big themes down into very precise terms.

The film concerns three actors – Sebastian (Ek), Hans (Björnstrand) and Thea (Thulin) – who are interrogated by a judge in regard to the alleged obscenity of a play that has been censored and reported. Hans and Thea are married, but Thea relies upon Sebastian for her sexual satisfaction. As the characters talk and reveal themselves to each other, the Judge is slowly driven into madness until the actors finally get their revenge.

My first experience of The Rite, more than fifteen years ago, was one of the most peculiar experiences of my film-viewing life. I could not watch it but not because I was bored. Rather, there was a physiological inability to sit through the film from start to finish. It made me physically uncomfortable and I kept fidgeting and wandering about; anything rather than watch the TV screen. I didn’t turn the film off but as soon as it finished, I put the videotape away and felt relieved that it was over. A second viewing, some time later, didn’t have anything like the same effect. What it revealed, however, was that this is a film that, if you let it, can get inside your consciousness and focus your mind on things that you really don’t want to think about. That’s not unusual with Bergman’s best work - Cries and Whispers is perhaps the most harrowing example – but The Rite has a particularly unnerving, claustrophobic quality which is almost pornographically voyeuristic in its impact.

The title of the film also reminds us that rituals have always been a significant part of Bergman’s work. On an obvious level, one might point out the brutally formal church services in Winter Light, the judicial examination of Vogler in The Magician. and the honorary degree ceremony which is the object of the journey in Wild Strawberries. The rituals of Christmas celebration form the first part of Fanny and Alexander while the simple secular ritual of dictating a business letter becomes a key scene in From The Life of the Marionettes. Characters in Bergman’s films frequently turn their actions into quasi-sacraments – the rape and the subsequent killings in The Virgin Spring and the series of ritual tableaux in The Seventh Seal for example. Bergman is interested in the rites themselves but also in the purpose and function of the rites and the psychological need for formal ceremony that they betray. The best example is, naturally, in Winter Light where the pastor, needing a psychological crutch to stop himself falling apart, continues with his Communion service even though he has finally acknowledged that he feels God is no longer listening.

Yet there is something deeper in The Rite, something which comes from Bergman’s own life. During the 1960s, Bergman was head of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Sweden, constantly assailed by censorious voices complaining that what he was doing was inappropriate in one way or another. The frustration this caused him, in his words, “boiled over into The Rite. Essentially, the Judge is the anti-artist asking the three actors to explain themselves and their work, not realising that no explanation or apology is required for art. The Judge has to be deconstructed and destroyed, condemned as inhuman for his thoughtless condemnation and humilation. However, the three actors are equally flawed and, in some senses, self-destructing. Sebastian is hopelessly impulsive, emotional, mentally unstable and a completely creative artist. Hans is benevolent and generous but a disciplinarian with a mania for order. Thea, like so many of Bergman’s heroines, is irrational, mildly demented and deeply intuitive – Bergman describes her as “a kind of satellite dish for secret signals from extra-terrestrial radio station”. She is a close cousin to the four women of Cries And Whispers and Alma in Persona. In one scene, she explains herself, describing her life as “incessantly running water”. Her character appears to be based on an old girlfriend of Bergman's who sent him a bizarre, embarrassingly intimate and revealing letter which is virtually word for word repeated in Thea's confession monologue. The three of them make a complete person and Bergman has confessed that the person they make is, broadly speaking, him. Without the travails he experienced as head of the theatre, Bergman could possibly never have understood himself clearly enough to divide himself in this manner. The relationships between the three are complex but somehow unquestioned by them – Hans seems to accept Thea and Sebastian’s coupling with equanimity. Within each of the actors there is conflict – Sebastian’s confession to the Judge is a remarkable sequence, in which he says, “I exist on a stony beach, which lowers itself in waves toward a protective ocean.” But they are never completely alone.

The Judge, however, is completely alone, totally (and necessarily, if you accept the argument of the film) damned. He’s an incredibly complex character, someone who claims to hate the job he’s doing while relishing its power. Even as he says to Sebastian, “I’ve tried not to hurt or embarrass you, In a sense, I’ve perhaps been too discreet”, he is watching for the effect his questions have caused. Yet when he says “I’m incapable of feeling aggression” he is speaking the truth. He isn’t incapable of feeling but the only feeling that has any meaning to him is self-hatred and limitless self-pity. In Scene 5 he makes his confession at church – the priest is played, ironically, by Bergman – and states “Outside the fragile circle of human warmth, cruelty reigns”, never realising that he embodies the cruelty he fears and will never be allowed inside the delicate circle he craves.

The intensity of the film is fascinating and relentless. It’s structured in a very formal manner – all the characters together; Sebastian and Thea; Sebastian and the Judge; Judge in confession; Hans and Thea; Hans and the Judge; Hans and Sebastian; Thea and the Judge; all the characters together. This kind of deliberately episodic structure – the film is even broken down into chapters – would recur in Bergman’s work, notably in his much underrated film From The Life of the Marionettes. The settings are rooms, mostly non-descript. Seldom examined, but incredibly important, is the influence upon Bergman of the playwright Harold Pinter. The classic Pinter themes of ‘The Room’ and ‘The Interrogation’ are crucial in The Rite and, on a more general level, the scenes of people tearing themselves and each other apart resemble one of the more emotionally intense Pinter plays such as “The Homecoming”, “Old Times” or “Betrayal”. It was surely with some kind of serendipity that Liv Ullmann, Bergman’s favourite actor, should have appeared in the 1985 revival of “Old Times”. If you look at Pinter’s short play “One for the Road”, you find an interrogator conducting a series of increasingly violent questionings while his own mental state is gradually deconstructed. I am not suggesting that Pinter cribbed from Bergman, but rather that two great artists are both interested in the same thing – the effect that an interrogation has on both questioner and questioned and the concentrated, almost sensual relationship that can develop between an interrogator and his subject.

As you would expect, the performances are beyond criticism. Ingrid Thulin works wonders with a part that is similar to several others that she played for Bergman and Björnstrand is typically solid and subtle in his playing of a man who has turned humiliation into a vital part of his emotional make-up. Anders Ek is mannered but impressive as Sebastian. However, the best performance comes from Erik Hell as the Judge. It is a beautifully controlled performance in a terribly difficult part and one of the best character sketches in any of Bergman’s films. Technically, it’s equally strong with Sven Nykvist supplying some indelibly chilly images. The final scene is extraordinarily powerful, somewhat reminiscent of the finale to The Magician but without any of the supernatural mumbo-jumbo. The revenge of the artist upon the censor, the bureaucrat with no artistic sense or spiritual centre, is complete. It’s not a subtle message but one senses that, for Bergman, it was a very satisfying one.

The Disc

One of the most recent entries in Tartan’s “Ingmar Bergman Collection”, The Rite is gifted with an impressive black and white transfer but no relevant extras of note. This is the full version of the film, which restores the 1970 cuts made by the BBFC.

Presented in its original TV fullscreen format, the film looks very good indeed. The monochrome image is crisp, displaying excellent contrast and some satisfyingly subtle shades of grey. The blacks are reasonably deep and true, although slightly washed out in occasional scenes. The mono soundtrack presents no problems at all and keeps the all-important dialogue suitably clear.

The retail release comes with some film notes but these were not included with the review copy. These used to be on the disc itself and I mourn their passing. Also regrettable is the absence of the extracts from Bergman’s essential book “Images” which appeared on earlier releases in the series. All we get now are trailers for Persona and Autumn Sonata and filmographies for Bergman, Björnstrand and Ek. Tartan can do better.

The film is divided into 10 chapters and there are removable English subtitles provided.

The Rite is likely to be absolute hell for anyone not acquainted with Bergman’s work. But his admirers will find a good deal of interest in this revealing, harrowing film. Tartan’s DVD is good to look at but lacks the kind of extra features which would justify the high retail price.

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Last updated: 07/06/2018 07:49:53

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