On January 10, Liv and Ingmar, Dheeraj Akolkar's moving documentary about Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and his muse, actress Liv Ullmann, opens at the Opera Plaza Cinema. The film is a love story, a valentine to two great artists who inspired each other to do their best work. Decades after their romantic relationship ended, Ullmann and Bergman continued to love each other deeply and profoundly. The films they made during their post romance period continue to mesmerize film lovers.
Akolkar's film becomes startlingly intimate as Ullmann sits before the camera and quietly speaks of her personal and professional association with Bergman. She appears to hold nothing back, candidly recalling their stifling romantic relationship, in which she felt trapped. Through Bergman's lens, moviegoers were able to peer inside Ullmann's soul.
After they broke up, they continued working together, producing masterful films such as Cries and Whispers (1972), Scenes From A Marriage (1973) and Autumn Sonata (1978).
With each new film, their respect and love for each other grew and grew. Their spirits were intertwined. And yet they never got back together.
"They longed for each others' friendship and creative association, which in my belief was far stronger" Akolkar told SF Weekly. "But love is a mysterious phenomenon. If you have truly loved, you don't grow out of it. Even today, they are connected, I am sure of that. My favorite line from Liv's book Changing is 'I knew I could never leave him, and in a way I never have'. That knowledge, deep in your heart, that is love."
As Ullmann speaks, her and Bergman's story is illustrated with clips from their films, pictures from their lives, and newly shot footage of Bergman's house. Ullmann walks quietly through the house as she recalls memories both good and bad. Sometimes she smiles. Sometimes her eyes well up with tears.
"It is truly splendid that she did open up for our film," said Akolkar. "I know that she felt safe, not only with me as the director, but with the whole crew. She loved the producer and the cinematographer. The sound recordist and she had the same favorite Bergman film."
He went on to say, "Our researcher showed her pictures from the only play she and Ingmar did together at the National Theater in Oslo ('Six Characters in Search of an Author' by Pirandello) that brought back memories. Together we were in the house that Bergman built for her on the island of Faro. She knew our attentions and approach came from a place of deep respect. That is the reason she chose to open up."
While parts of the film might induce tears, there are several surprisingly lighthearted moments. Ullmann and Bergman, purveyors of some of the cinema's most morose films, weren't afraid to giggle when the cameras weren't rolling.
"Liv Ullmann has an incredible sense of humor," Akolkar said. "She cracks some amazing jokes, some practical jokes too. And she is a team player, she loves to be surrounded by everyone. There was no hierarchy when we were working, and it helps immensely when someone so senior, and a legend, is so human and real. She is pure sunshine!"
When asked what he thought might be the legacy of Ullmann and Bergman, the filmmaker said, "One word comes to mind: integrity. Their artistic integrity is the reason for their longevity and success. They have both left behind -- and Liv is still creating -- timeless works. Cinema of great honesty. In that purity is their legacy. As a student of the cinema, that is what I learn from them both. You have to make art for the sake of art, and then it has a chance of surviving through time and boundaries."
Look for Liv and Ingmar at the Opera Plaza Cinemas (601 Van Ness).