Professor Isak Borg awakens early on the day he is to receive an honourary degree, disturbed by a dream of his own death. He decides to drive with his daughter-in-law Marianne to the university. On their drive, she criticizes him for his coldness, causing him to examine his life.
They stop at the house where he lived as a child, and he remembers his rejection by the beautiful Sara. Shortly thereafter they pick up a girl hitchhiker who in looks and in defiant attitude is like Sara. Then they are involved in an accident. The husband and wife who were in the other car join the professor's party, but they fight, and Marianne orders them out.
In the peace that follows, the old doctor dreams again, this time of failing a medical examination. He wakes and they stop to visit his old mother, whose coldness to him shocks Marianne. They reach the university, and the doctor is honoured. As the day ends, he makes his first tentative efforts to break through the shell of coldness he has built around himself.
"Ingmar Bergman's first big popular success in the United States. It's a very uneven film: an eminent physician (Victor Sjöström) looks back over his life, which is tricked up with gothic effects and contrasts (there are resemblances to passages in Dead of Night
and Dreyer's Vampyr
) and with peculiarly unconvincing flashbacks and overexplicit dialogue. It's a very lumpy odyssey, yet who can forget Sjöström's face, or the vicious, bickering couple who rasp at each other in the back seat of a car, or the large-scale mask of the beautiful Ingrid Thulin
as the physician's unhappy daughter-in-law? Few movies give us such memorable, emotion-charged images. One can try to forget the irritations: the incredibly callow representatives of youth, the 'cold' rigid son (Gunnar Björnstrand
), the disappointingly vacuous parts assigned Bibi Andersson
as the two Saras, the expendable role of Naima Wifstrand
as the ancient mother."
– Pauline Kael
"One of Bergman's warmest, and therefore finest films, this concerns an elderly academic–grouchy, introverted, dried up emotionally–who makes a journey to collect a university award, and en route
relives his past by means of dreams, imagination, and encounters with others. It's an occasionally over-symbolic work (most notably in the opening nightmare sequence), but it's filled with richly observed characters and a real feeling for the joys of nature and youth. And Sjöström–himself a celebrated director, best known for his silent work (which included the Hollywood masterpiece The Wind
)–gives an astonishingly moving performance as the aged professor. As Bergman himself wrote of his performance in the closing moments: 'His face shone with secretive light, as if reflected from another reality...It was like a miracle.'"
– Geoff Andrew, Time Out
"I had only him [Victor Sjöström] in mind. I would
have him. I'd be damned if I wouldn't have him, there was nobody else imaginable, nobody else on whom to model this part. There were similarities between my father and Victor that I wanted to get at. And of course between me and my father. And without being a carbon copy at all, the part was a blend of my father, Victor, and myself."
– Ingmar Bergman