The Compleat Ingmar #26: The Rite (1969)

Criterion’s Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema is nothing if not fickle: Sawdust and Tinsel, which I liked a lot, is followed by The Rite, originally a stage play but presented here in a TV adaptation – and, frankly? I hated it.

To some extent this may be due to me not knowing or understanding the specific cultural and historical context in which Bergman made The Rite. The film is about a trio of actors – Hans Winkelmann (Gunnar Björnstrand), his wife Thea (Ingrid Thulin) and their creative partner Sebastian Fisher (Anders Ek), who is also Thea’s lover – being interviewed by a judge (Erik Hell) about their stage performance, which has been accused of indecency. There are clearly various themes at play, both familiar ones from earlier Bergman films and others that owe more to what was happening in Bergman’s life at the time, that The Rite processes creatively, and I was only vaguely aware of some of the latter, such as Bergman’s ongoing battle with the Swedish tax authorities and his recent tenure at the Royal Dramatic Theatre. Perhaps I would have enjoyed The Rite better if I knew more about these – but, frankly? I don’t think so.

The Rite clearly shows its origins as a stage play, and it retains a certain stagey quality even beyond its structure. The story, or what story there is, is separated into numbered scenes, alternating between Judge Abrahamson interviewing the actors and past interactions and confrontations of the three artists. There is a declamatory quality to much of the dialogue – something Bergman isn’t averse to in most of his films, but here there is little to contrast with, so that The Rite takes on a hectoring quality.

Bergman isn’t kind to Abrahamson, the insecure, unsophisticated judge. He comes off as small-minded, lecherous, the kind of audience that most likely no actor would want – unless, The Rite suggests, those actors can in turn lord their sophistication, their creativity and self-awareness over him. Bergman isn’t much kinder on the acting troupe – apparently, the writer-director said that he, more or less consciously, split himself into Hans, Thea and Sebastian, and Bergman rarely reserves much affection for the characters that stand in for him in his films. The actors are arrogant, pompous, insecure and neurotic, they have disdain for themselves and for others, but they nevertheless create, where the judge is destructive in the most banal way. He is pruriently fascinated by the performance he has heard about but never seen, even when prosecuting the actors for their work.

Thing is, I didn’t much feel like spending time around any of these characters, and if anything, I felt sorry for Abrahamson. I have a lot of time, patience and sympathy for Bergman’s neurotics, for the characters of his that despair of their own insecurities. I know that emotional cruelty is a note he often employs. But The Rite essentially ends on the following scene (if you want to give the film a chance and are averse to spoilers, look away now): the trio performs their play, a psychosexual ritual of sorts, in front of the judge – thereby triggering a heart attack and killing the man. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, in this film, three self-important, neurotic actors kill a banal little official by means of bad, tacky art.

This is something I’m generally not a big fan of in films: artists and art that are supposed to be worth something but clearly aren’t. Writers that supposedly are amazing, but whatever writing of theirs is presented in the film is trite and hollow (Clouds of Sils Maria, I’m looking at you). Poets whose movie poetry could have been written, and written better, by a machine-learning algorithm. Actors whose idea of acting comes from bad sketch comedy. What art we see the three actors perform is silly and dated, and it doesn’t help that it is presented with a po-faced solemnity. Perhaps some of this might have worked better in the dark intimacy of a theatre, but the TV aesthetic of The Rite doesn’t do the material any favours. Nor do the oversized wooden phalluses that Ek and Björnstrand strap on.

We’ve seen Bergman dabble in psychosexual imagery before, most prominently perhaps in Hour of the Wolf. Looking at many of these films half a century after they were made, it is easy to point out elements that seem dated. But none of the films we’ve previously visited on this tour of the director’s oeuvre have felt this silly, and none of the films have featured characters that seem to have been boiled down to one or two surprisingly generic neuroses. Did The Rite have something to say about the society or cultural landscape that Bergman found himself in during the period? If so, I’m not sure it still has, fifty years later. Bergman’s films often require a certain patience up-front – he is certainly no European, art-house Michael Bay – but with all the patience and goodwill I brought to The Rite, I couldn’t find much here that I’d consider intriguing or fascinating, or even just interesting – a word that Judge Abrahamson might use himself.

So, looking back at All These Women, I almost feel like I have to apologise to that film. I didn’t particularly like it, I found much of its humour grating, but there was an inventive quality to some of its scenes that I responded to. If I look back at The Rite in a number of months or years, it’s likely that my main thought will be: what a waste of good actors and oversized wooden phalluses. Curtains. Slut, as the Swedish say.

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