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THE RITE: FILM NOTES
by David Parkinson
Nineteen sixty-six proved to be a mixed year for Ingmar Bergman. His latest feature, Persona, received rave reviews from critics around the world, yet disappointed at the box office in his native Sweden. Moreover, his three-year tenure as director of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm came to an abrupt end when he resigned because of his growing "resentment against the critics, audience, and government, with which I was in constant battle."
Then, in October, Bergman was invited to Holland to accept the Erasmus Prize of one hundred thousand Dutch florins from Prince Bernhard. However, he used the ceremony to launch a despairing tirade against both his profession and those who sat in judgement upon it–an outburst that would later find its way into Winklemann's mouth in The Rite: "Service to an artistic ideal was once an ennobling ambition, but I've grown tired of this so-called artistry. I no longer believe in what we're doing. I think we're meaningless, disgusting, absurd. We're not relevant any more."
The following year, having completed the screenplay that would ultimately become Shame (1968), Bergman began work on a story involving a scientist who conducts a series of psychic experiments on a pair of reluctant victims. However, he abandoned this to give vent to his gnawing creative frustrations in a showdown between an officious judge and a trio of cabaret artists that has been summoned before him to answer a charge of obscenity.
"So, in a rather vague sort of way," Bergman recalled, "I began. And before I could say knife, there it was–a play! The direction script, it's true, reads like a film script. But there are no stage instructions. It's just dialogue, right through...1t was a wonderful feeling, suddenly writing a play–to be able to forget all about cinematic considerations, and just write dialogue."
Exhausted from the exertions of directing Shame, Bergman decided to make The Rite for Swedish television and devised a schema of claustrophobic sets and tight close-ups in order to limit the need for cinematic ingenuity. He later claimed that he intended emulating one of Jean-Luc Godard's political tracts. However, as Peter Cowie suggested in Ingmar Bergman, A Critical Biography, Bergman was also influenced by his own 1958 drama, The Magician–a link further reinforced by the fact that the name of Anders Ek's character, Albert Emmanuel Sebastian Fischer, echoes that of Max Von Sydow's Albert Emanuel Vogler in the earlier film.
In order to maintain the project's low-key intimacy, Bergman also opted to produce it through his own newly formed company, Cinematograph, which he had named in honour of the Lumière brothers. Moreover, he also elected to play the priest himself, thus limiting his cast to five–Gunnar Björnstrand as actor-manager Hans Winkelmann, Ingrid Thulin as his wife Thea, Ek as her lover, and Erik Hell as Judge Abrahamson, whose veneer of supercilious authority eventually cracks to reveal someone as deeply flawed as those he is interrogating.
Bergman rehearsed his cast for four weeks and completed the shoot in nine days. Strewn with references to art and artifice, bodily decay and Catholicism–as well as numerous autobiographical confessions and allusions–the dialogue is delivered with sneering self-loathing by an ensemble that excels itself during the performance of the macabre ritual that brings about the troupe's salvation.
Yet, this clearly remains what Sight and Sound called "an exorcism of personal ghosts," as Bergman's detestation of officialdom, critics and audiences spewed out along with the wine released by Sebastian's knife at the climax of the actors' intimidating, but otherwise cack-handed exhibition of Grand Guignol–the shock of which causes Abrahamson's demise. But Bergman obviously didn't resolve all the doubts and contradictions that had inspired the screenplay, for while he had Sebastian say, "I am my own god. I supply my own angels and demons," he also allowed Winkelmann to concede that "the really great artists can't be hurt. I'm not one of them."
The Rite screened on Swedish television on 25 March 1969 before receiving a limited theatrical release outside Scandinavia.
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