Ingrid Bergman, the actress immortalized for playing Ilsa Lund in Casablanca and opposite Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s Notorious, pioneered a career of international stardom that looks modern, if not straight up standard, to today’s viewers, but in her time was anything but. A new documentary by Stig Bjorkman (a fellow Swede) offers insight into the woman behind this globe-trotting and groundbreaking career in his telling of Bergman’s story using mostly bits of her own autobiographical works, along with loads and loads of archival footage, ranging from home recordings to press reels. The result is a flattering portrait of an actress who by all objective measures was a superstar, but appeared to somehow rise well above tabloid celebrity despite having a personal life marked by family struggles and intense love affairs.
The doc begins with death. When the Stockholm native was 13, her father died, as did other relatives in an accident. Her mother passed away when she was only 2. From this grim beginning, Bergman’s life and career seems to have just blossomed out of her drive for adventure, talent and remarkable natural beauty. But just as the documentary follows her career in Hollywood, starting with Intermezzo and the evergreen Casablanca a few years later, it also hones in on her family life and how she was, in essence, almost always separate from her children. With her first child, Pia, the actress lived in Hollywood while her daughter and first husband lived in Rochester, New York. After that, Bergman moved to Italy after falling in love with auteur filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, with whom she had three kids. But when living in Rome, she was off working as well, not homemaking. Some of the most fascinating moments in the film have Bergman’s children talking about what it was like growing up mostly without their mother. Pia remarks that for Bergman, whose childhood was marked by death and a loneliness that prompted her to act, children weren’t really that interesting.
To be clear, the documentary never makes Bergman out to be a poor mother. Her letters to her kids and writings about them (which are voiced here by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina, The Danish Girl) are touching and lovely. Moreover, her relationships with the men in her life, from Rossellini to war photographer Robert Capa, appear to be the emotional and personal investments of a driven woman for whom adventure and new experiences were what it meant to be alive. Although she struggled with shyness her whole life, she was yet able to become the very definition of cosmopolitan. To see her on variety shows or in home movies, it’s hard not to admire Bergman, with her social grace and glowing poise. Even her fascination with Joan of Arc, an interesting side story which could easily be construed as some form of narcissism, comes off as legit, a cool historical interest. The togetherness surrounding the actress’ legacy here almost makes the entire documentary suspect, because, in the end, what we end up learning about Bergman is that she was remarkable and lived a remarkable life. While that’s amazing and even inspiring, one can’t help but yearn for something more transcendent from a work based on the life of one of the movies’ most beloved stars.
Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words is playing at the Lagoon Theater in Minneapolis.