The Magician (originally released as The Face) is an unjustly overlooked Ingmar Bergman film, sandwiched between cinema monoliths The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries and early-’60s classics The Virgin Spring and Through a Glass Darkly. It’s as vibrant as any work in his oeuvre — an odd mix of drama, bedroom farce and horror deep with critical, religious and existential symbolisms.
The film follows a traveling troupe led by a mute mesmerist (Max von Sydow) who wander the 19th-century Swedish countryside performing innocuous feats of magic, medicine and illusion when not upsetting locals with antics (some of which have landed them in jail and worse). Upon entering their latest stop, the group is immediately sequestered and interrogated by town officials. Before they can perform in the village, they must first stage their act for their inquisitors, some whom intend to expose them as frauds and others whom hope for their legitimacy. The scheme backfires in both regards.
Though introspective, creepy and sometimes surprisingly humorous, The Magician contains sharp commentary. Through the anguished and frustrated silent magician, Bergman stabs both at authority figures who have ever stifled an artist’s work and at every believer blindly misguided by faith. Science and the supernatural struggle strong, as well. Yet Bergman shows that well-played tricks can fool even the hardest of minds, proving that logic and reason will never suffocate wonder and spectacle.
The Criterion Collection presents The Magician in stunning fashion, with a restored high-definition transfer that enhances the beauty of Bergman and cinematographer Gunnar Fischer’s immaculately composed, black-and-white images. A visual essay on the film by Bergman historian Peter Cowie; two interviews with Bergman from 1967 and 1990; and a booklet featuring excerpts from a Bergman tribute by filmmaker Olivier Assayas, an essay by critic Geoff Andrews and an excerpt from Bergman’s autobiography complement the film perfectly. Grade: A