A few nights ago, I went to my local movie theater in Berkeley to see a movie I had been looking forward to ever since I heard that it was part of the Cannes Film Festival last year. Entitled Ingrid Bergman-In Her Own Words, this beautiful documentary based on the diaries of Ingrid Bergman and supplemented by interviews with her children, was something I couldn’t miss.
I fell in love with Ingrid Bergman before I had even reached my junior high years. The first time I saw Casablanca was at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, when I was 11 years old. I knew I was watching something special–not just because the theater was packed to the gills and the line stretched around the block to get in, but because once the movie started, I couldn’t take my eyes off the unusually beautiful woman on the screen. I loved her mysterious accent, those expressive eyes, and the comforting timbre of her voice. She was unlike anything I had seen before in my 11 years, and it was right then and there that I experienced the appeal and charm of Ingrid Bergman.
By the age of 13, I had read all the biographies, seen her complete filmography, and had become fascinated by a woman who not only exuded one of the gentlest, most alluring personalities on the screen (and who I found much warmer and more comforting than Greta Garbo), but who, I found, lived her personal life her own way, beholden to no one.
For me as an Ingrid Bergman devotee and aficionado, the documentary was beautifully done. Woven together with excerpts from her own diary, letters to friends and interviews with her family members, it was a loving tribute to a charming, complex woman who valued her freedom above all else. From her early childhood in Sweden to her Hollywood years, her relationships with her children, and her final years and death, it helped to fill in gaps in my understanding of Ingrid Bergman as a human being, and to better understand her reasons for many of her life choices.
One of the most interesting aspects of Ingrid Bergman’s life, to me, has always been the tragic nature of her childhood, and how, in spite of losing her entire family by the time she was 14, she was able to overcome the immense obstacles of her life and fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming an actress. I came away from the movie with a new perspective on Ingrid Bergman’s childhood. It was not in spite of these obstacles, I found, that she was able to become as successful and brilliant an actress as she became. It was because of them. Entries from her childhood diary outline how she never felt at home unless she was acting, as it took her away from her grim reality of her surroundings. Another aspect of Ingrid Bergman’s life that the documentary highlighted was Ingrid’s penchant for carrying a camera onto her sets and filming 16mm home movies. We often see photos of Ingrid behind a camera, shooting scenes from her sets or home movies of her children. Cinema was Ingrid’s life, and whether behind or in front of the camera, she was most comfortable when enmeshed in that world.
Before leaving for Hollywood, Ingrid married brain surgeon Petter Lindstrom, and their daughter Pia was born in 1938. Ingrid was a loving mother, if not always a present one, to Pia when she was young, and interviews with Pia for the documentary are strikingly different from those with her other three children. Pia’s interviews are more analytical, less sugar-coated than her siblings’, and while she clearly loved her mother, Pia does not make any excuses for Ingrid’s frequent absences and prioritizing her career and romantic life over her children. The interviews with her siblings, all carrying the surname “Rossellini,” are warm, understanding, and loving in contrast.
While filming Stromboli in Italy in 1949, Ingrid Bergman fell in love with Roberto Rossellini, whom she had admired for many years and to whom she had written to ask for a role in one of his films. Ingrid’s status as a married woman with a pre-teen daughter complicated their relationship, and the scandal with Rossellini shocked the world when it was revealed that Ingrid had become pregnant with Rossellini’s child. The two married several months after the birth of their son, Roberto Jr., and a few years later Ingrid gave birth to a pair of twins, Isotta Ingrid (known now simply as “Ingrid”) and Isabella. Following the scandal with Rossellini, Ingrid Bergman was blacklisted from movies both in the United States and her native Sweden, labeled a “blot on the Swedish flag” and unfit to make movies in the United States due to morality concerns. She didn’t make another movie in either country until 1956, but when she did, it was a smash–Ingrid’s American comeback in Anastasia garnered her her third Oscar.
The documentary touches on this part of Ingrid’s life with sensitivity and grace, and the perspectives of her children on the aspects of her personality that may have contributed to it were very insightful. The lasting impression that one gets from the documentary is that Ingrid Bergman was a woman who could not be tied down, a fascinating and complicated woman ahead of her time.
Because of my longstanding love for Ingrid Bergman, it is difficult for me to know how the general public might feel about this documentary. The documentary assumes some basic knowledge about Ingrid Bergman and classic Hollywood in general, and when several members of the audience walked out of the movie, I hypothesized that they likely lacked the background needed to fully appreciate its message. I would absolutely recommend it to someone with a passing knowledge of classic Hollywood. To someone who does not have that background, I might suggest reading a Bergman biography and watching a few of her movies before watching this documentary.
But for those of us fully converted to Bergman-ism, it is pure joy.