News of the death of Ingmar Bergman naturally conjurs images of Bengt Ekerot leading a party of dead souls as they dance across a starkly beautiful countryside; the late director was responsible for the most unforgettable modern representation of death, and he surely knew images of the chess-playing reaper would accompany his passing. Equally eloquent to me is the chimes that signal various transitions in Cries and Whispers. It's a breathtakingly brilliant device, the passage of time towards an inevitable conclusion stripped of all human speculation and reduced to a single, quiet sound that is at both familiar and alien - it is the sound of the unknown.
Bergman's chime rang today; he leaves behind a wealth of great cinema that returns again and again to his preoccupations - the topography of the human face and the mysteries it conceals, the inexplicable power of our sexual desire and our very need to connect, the transcendence of performance (theater being as important to the director as film), the question of how to live in a universe ruled by an unseen or nonexistent God. And, of course, death, and how the knowledge of our mortality informs our existence. His films are alternately passionate and remote, cynical and nostalgic, unsparing and almost unbearably humane. And while his worldview was unflinchingly bleak, I value most greatly his films' capacity for almost supernatural acts of compassion - the scene in Cries and Whispers where Anna cradles the dying Agnes has a transcendent power that cinema has rarely touched. How beautifully ironic that a man who struggled so greatly with the meaning of his own existence would, in his passing, remind us how much one life can mean to the world. And that, as I'm sure Bergman would reluctantly agree, is its own kind of magic.