"The Magician" *** (out of ****)
Ingmar Bergman will put a spell on you in the Swedish drama "The Magician" (1958).
When I was a teenager I discovered the films of Ingmar Bergman, in fact, while in high school, taking a French language class, I discovered the world of foreign films. It was during this time I first saw Mr. Bergman's "The Magician". I didn't like the movie very much. I don't think I understood what Mr. Bergman was trying to say. The movie had a nice visual style and created an eerie atmosphere though it left me cold.
I have seen "The Magician" again recently. Am I brave enough to say I understand everything going on in the movie? No. But I do see a deeper meaning in it. That has raised my appreciation for it.
When "The Magician" was released in America, Ingmar Bergman had already established a name for himself with the art house crowd in this country. Prior releases included "The Seventh Seal" (1957) and "Brink of Life" (1958). Each movie dealt with existential issues. Is their a God? What is the meaning of life? What is man's place in the world? Mr. Bergman, the son of a Lutheran minister, was an atheist. Religion had been a major theme in a string of his movies. He even directed a "faith trilogy"; "Through A Glass, Darkly" (1961), "Winter Light" (1963) and "The Silence" (1963).
It is when looking at the movie in this context that I begin to think Mr. Bergman wanted to make another movie which makes a commentary on religion. The question then becomes, what was Mr. Bergman trying to say? If you can answer that question you have found the key to understanding the movie and possibly enjoying it.
It is 1848 and there is a traveling magic show headed by Dr. Albert Emanuel Vogler (Max von Sydow) which makes its way into a small European town where they have been advertised. Before they can begin with their show they are taken to the home of Consul-man Egerman (Erland Josephson) where the Police Superintendant (Toivo Pawlo) and Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Bjornstrand) await to question the troupe, consisting of Vogler's assistant, Mr. Aman (Ingrid Thulin), Vogler's grandmother (Naima Wifstrand), who supposedly is a witch, their coach driver (Lars Ekborg) and Johan (Bengt Ekerot) the spokesman.
There has been some suspicion spreading from town to town concerning the authenticity of Vogler's act. The Superintendent and Dr. Vergerus demand the troupe put on a private show for them so they may ascertain (and possibly humiliate) whether or not Vogler's act is full of tricks or miracles.
Egerman and Dr. Vergerus are both men of science and have a wager going on between them. Egerman believes there are things in this world which happen that cannot be explained by science thus proving the existence of God. Dr. Vergerus believes in all logic and reason. Science will be able to explain everything. Vogler will confirm one of their beliefs.
So the movie comes down to science vs God. Is there such a thing as the super natural? The interesting question becomes what does the magician, Vogler, represent? Is Vogler God? Is he Jesus? Max von Sydow did play Jesus in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965). Who do Egerman and Dr. Vergerus represent? Could they be the non-believers that always required Jesus to prove himself by performing a miracle in front of them? Perhaps.
To a similar extent the viewers should should also ask themselves what about the grandmother? Is she really a witch or just a deceitful con artist like Vogler?
Besides not being able to completely understand what Mr. Bergman is attempting to say in this movie, what also lessens the experience for me is who is Vogler? I wish Mr. Bergman would have played around more with the mystique of this character. Does he actually have the ability to do what he says he does or is he a phony? Much of the movie seems to be about deception, so we may have our answer there. The same goes for the grandmother.
One could make a case, a small one, the movie is also addressing the censorship of the artist. However I do not believe this theme is fully addressed but if one does feel it is addressed properly in the movie, again, we must ask ourselves what is Mr. Bergman trying to say? Those that do not understand art try to de-value it? We are threatened by what we do not understand; art, religion?
"The Magician" doesn't rank alongside some of Ingmar Bergman's best films but it does play around with some very interesting concepts which seem typical of themes Mr. Bergman explored in a great number of his films. Because of that it should not be avoided however I feel this movie works best for those that have already developed an appreciation for Mr. Bergman's films. It should not be your introduction into his work.