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Torment (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on February 2, 2013

Jan-Erik Widgren (Alf Kjellin) is in his last year of high school. He and his friends suffer the rigors of Latin class, led by a sadistic and condescending teacher they call “Caligula” (Stig Järrel). One night, Widgren spots Bertha (Mai Zetterling), the clerk at the local tobacconist, stumbling home drunk. He escorts her home, and learns that she’s terrified of a man she won’t name, a man who stalks her and torments her. Jan-Erik and Bertha take solace in each other’s company, but the demons that haunt them get in the way.

Here’s a dull tidbit of trivia: this is the very first DVD on my rack. The top shelf is devoted to some of my favorite directors, with their work in chronological order. As the first film in the “Early Bergman” box set, this one starts off my collection. Alf Sjöberg directed it but Bergman wrote it (and directed the final scenes). And it’s one of the best of his early period. I had watched it once six years ago and put it out of my mind… I’d forgotten how goddamn good it is.

The script is sensitive, nuanced and insightful. Bergman is clearly working out some of his own demons, lashing out at bullies and institutionalized systems and injustice. As a wartime film, it’s not hard to envision “Caligula” as the embodiment of fascism. However, even though the character is written as a really nasty sonofabitch, there is some attempt to humanize him. It’s not The Browning Version or anything, but he’s not a one-dimensional figure of pure evil. By the same token, Jan-Erik and Bertha are not paragons of virtue either. They make mistakes, they lash out. They’re figuring out how to navigate a world that’s often cruel and unfair, a world where freedom is relative.

The film has a noir-like sensibility. It’s weird to say that a Swedish movie about high school is a noir, but it fits. These characters are stuck in dark places, wanting to escape but struggling against both external and internal factors. “Caligula” is corrupted by his power, and relies on his willingness to be more ruthless than others. And the cinematography is simply glorious. Long shadows, dramatic angles, piercing shafts of light.  Many scenes are staged on staircases, places of transition, ambiguity and peril. I had a hard time deciding which screenshot to use for this review.

The cast is uniformly excellent, including Olof Winnerstrand as the sympathetic headmaster and Stig Olin (who has become one of my favorites of Bergman’s early stable) as Widgren’s sarcastic friend. Zetterling especially is a powerhouse, you can’t take your eyes off her.  She’s a heartbreaking character. It’s a cynical, bleak film, but also one with a renewal of hope at the end. Amidst the cruel behavior and bitterness are some humorous moments and tender exchanges. A well-crafted piece of work, psychologically complex and dramatically fulfilling.  Rating: Very Good (86)


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