Combustible Celluloid
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With: Josef Köstlinger, Irma Urrila, Håkan Hagegård, Elisabeth Erikson, Ulrik Cold, Birgit Nordin, Ragnar Ulfung, Erik Saedén, Britt-Marie Aruhn, Birgitta Smiding, Kirsten Vaupel, Ansgar Krook, Urban Malmberg, Erland von Heijne
Written by: Ingmar Bergman, based on an opera by Emanuel Schikaneder, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Swedish, with English subtitles
Running Time: 138
Date: 11/11/1975

The Magic Flute (1975)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Wolfgang Whistle

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

To start, I know next to nothing about opera. I am aware that there is something called Carmen, and from a line of dialogue in Trading Places, I can recognize the name La Bohème. I had heard of The Magic Flute from the 1980s song "Rock Me Amadeus," but I couldn't have told you the first thing about it. But since Ingmar Bergman made a movie version of The Magic Flute, and since I'll watch anything by Bergman, I decided to give it a shot.

Composed in the 18th century by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder (see? I'm learning!), the opera tells the story of Prince Tamino, who is persuaded by the Queen of the Night to rescue the beautiful Pamina, held captive by Sarastro. The prince is accompanied by the comic relief Papageno, who also wishes to find a bride for himself. Eventually, we discover that Sarastro is actually a good guy. But then Pamina and Papageno must endure three trials in order to get to their happy ending. Or something like that.

I suppose the story isn't really the point. Mozart's music lifts it well above any pathetic attempt to describe it in words. To film it, Bergman attempts a kind of tribute to old-fashioned theater houses, where painted sets change via hand-cranked gears. (It reminded me of Alexander's little toy theater in Fanny and Alexander.) He films head on, and the performers regard the camera as if it were the audience. Bergman occasionally goes in for close-ups, occasionally shows audience members watching, and even goes backstage for a bit. I was amazed at the translation, from German into Swedish, and then to English subtitles that somehow still manage to tell the story while rhyming!

Chosen as one of the ten best films of 1975 by Roger Ebert, Andrew Sarris, and the New York Times, the movie is difficult to dislike. Its tone is light and playful, almost relaxed and playful. It's rather unlike anything else Bergman ever made, although closer to an early comic roundelay like Smiles of a Summer Night than any of his later films. Yet it's difficult to reconcile The Magic Flute with, say, Bergman's incredibly vivid, colorful, and deeply affecting masterpiece Cries and Whispers, released just 2 or 3 years earlier. Both were shot by cinematographer Sven Nykvist, but the deep reds and palpable textures of the former doesn't quite match up to anything in the latter.

Criterion initially released The Magic Flute on DVD all the way back in 2000, and then on Blu-ray in last year's mammoth, 30-disc Blu-ray set Ingmar Bergman's Cinema. In March of 2019, it warranted its own, single Blu-ray, and I'm not sure exactly what to say about the quality of the transfer. The colors look flat, almost bleached, and skin tones are somewhat sickly. (When characters sing about how handsome Tamino or how beautiful Pamina are, it's difficult to grasp what they're talking about.) The audio is acceptable, but still seems very dated, a bit hollow sounding. I doubt Criterion could be to blame for this; it's more likely that, because it was shot for television, the source material was lacking.

In any case, despite the fact that my attention sometimes wandered during the 138-minute running time, and despite the lack of color or dazzle, I still enjoyed great portions of The Magic Flute, and found myself getting swept up in is charm. (However, I enjoyed it less than the only other opera film I can think of having seen, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's amazing The Tales of Hoffmann.) If I knew more about opera, I might have loved it, but I can at least recommend it to anyone who might be interested.

Criterion's Blu-ray includes an interview with director Ingmar Bergman recorded in 1974 for Swedish television, a new interview with film scholar Peter Cowie, a 1975 feature-length documentary produced for Swedish television about the making of the film, and a liner notes essay by author Alexander Chee.

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