Ingmar Bergman awoke David Stratton to the power of cinema. Stratton watched his first film by the Swedish director on October 31, 1957. It was called Smiles on a Summer Night (1955), and it was screened at his local film society. “It was a revelation,” says Stratton. “I’d never seen anything quite like it. It was strange and unsettling, partly comic, partly tragic. The first thing I wanted to do after that was see as many Bergman films as possible. In fact, I wanted to see anything. It opened up a bigger range to me, and it encouraged me to seek out more.”

Fifty-eight years later, Bergman is recognised as one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers the cinema has ever seen. And Stratton, one of the most respected film critics in Australia, is bringing a season of 10 of Bergman’s best works to ACMI – from the macabre and obscure, to the timeless and beautiful.

“Bergman made something like 45 films. It was very, very difficult to pick 10,” says Stratton. “But I chose the ones that I thought were the most important, and those that meant the most to me.”

The result is an eclectic range. Bergman has a reputation as a challenging, dour filmmaker, but he’s also passionate and bright. What might be surprising is the warmth in these films. Smiles on a Summer Night is a light-hearted, almost Shakespearean comedy. Fanny and Alexander (1982), loosely based on Bergman’s childhood, is a vivid, nostalgic epic depicting love, family and sex, all through a child’s perspective. Even The Seventh Seal (1957), with its brooding atmosphere and heavy symbolism (it’s the one where the knight, returned from the Crusades, sits on a beach and plays chess with Death himself), finds time for a few bleak laughs.

“There are recurring themes to be found in most of these films in one form or another,” says Stratton. “He was always enquiring about the human condition, the existence of god, the possibility or impossibility of true love … these are primal themes.”

The film Stratton was most keen to show was Saraband (2003), the director’s last film, and one considered almost a spiritual successor to his early film Wild Strawberries (1957). “It’s a summation of his life’s work, and all of those themes are wrapped up in that,” he says. “Wild Strawberries is the story of an old man looking back on his missed opportunities, missed relationships, reassessing himself. Bergman does that beautifully, even that early in his career.”

Stratton believes many of the films are a good reminder of struggles film enthusiasts had with censorship. The Virgin Spring (1960), The Silence (1963) and Persona (1966) were all butchered by the censors before they were deemed suitable for an Australian audience. It’s not hard to see what an overprotective censor might consider a threat to polite society; these films are confronting and wrought with existential terror and frank sexuality. They’re also beautiful and memorable.

Within a couple of years of seeing his first Bergman, Stratton started his own film society. He then became involved with the Sydney Film Festival. Then to SBS, for The Movie Show. “I never set out to be a critic,” he says. “My forte has always been proselytising for the films I loved.”

It’s hard, then, not to think of programming this season of Bergman films as bringing Stratton’s career full circle.

Essential Bergman featuring all of the films mentioned above and more, runs at ACMI from June 11–28.
Tickets are on sale now.