A rich but diffuse 'final' opus from Bergman
When it comes to Ingmar Bergman, I'm never on quite the same wavelength as most critics. In the early '60s I was bowled over by ''The Virgin Spring'' and ''The Silence,'' among others, and never tired of revisiting earlier pictures like ''The Seventh Seal'' and ''Smiles of a Summer Night.''
Many reviewers shared my enthusiasm. Yet a new generation of critics, just emerging at that point, found these movies stagy, stuffy, and self-conscious.
I stayed loyal, and looked forward eagerly to each new Bergman film. But something went wrong. Such major efforts as ''The Passion of Anna'' and ''The Touch'' seemed like glorified soap operas beneath their intellectual and symbolic trappings, while the celebrated ''Cries and Whispers'' struck me as more rude than revealing in its unblinking stare at human misery.
And, sure enough, the critical world turned about-face. Now that I found Bergman stagy and stuffy, other reviewers were scrambling to heap praise on his portentous pictures.
And so it goes. I liked ''The Serpent's Egg,'' which everyone else loathed. I was deeply moved by ''Autumn Sonata,'' which some critics - although not all - found overwrought. Most recently, I could hardly sit through the tedious ''From the Life of the Marionettes,'' though many reviewers considered it a profound excursion into the depths of something or other.
Now a new Bergman opus has arrived - the monumental ''Fanny and Alexander'' - and nothing has changed.
The picture has much to recommend it: warmth, humor, an abiding humanity, and a fascinating new slant on the personal themes that have preoccupied Bergman for years.
Yet I don't find it the unalloyed masterwork so many critics are proclaiming it to be. Its story is too diffuse, its attitude too detached - and its inspiration too jaggedly uneven - for it to reach the heights of sublimity, though it comes closer (at moments) than most movies of the past few years.
Set in 1907, the plot focuses on a provincial Swedish family. Some members are involved in a family-owned theater. Other figures include a small-time professor, a noisy restaurateur, sundry spouses and old friends, and the two children named in the title.
The opening scenes are among the most enchanting Bergman has ever given us - a Christmas celebration marked by love, joy, goodwill, high spirits, and just enough self-satisfaction to make the characters as believable as they are engaging.
Then the story begins to develop. We start sorting the characters out, learning their flaws and foibles, waiting for relationships to grow and deepen.
But right at this key moment, with magic promising to flower on the screen, the movie's momentum gives out. The incidents become trite - an uncle treats the kids to some fatuous bathroom humor, the matriarch trysts with an old lover, her son flirts with a servant - and though they're handled with lots of energy, they aren't very engaging.
One problem here is the treatment of Fanny and Alexander themselves. Bergman apparently means us to see the action through their eyes, thus getting a fresh perspective on otherwise stale shenanigans. Yet the children stay on the edge of the movie during the first half, contributing little except an excuse for the filmmaker to indulge childish whimsies.
The picture comes alive again during its second half, when Fanny and Alexander become full-fledged characters who demand and receive our fullest empathy. Seeking the best for herself and her children, their widowed mother finds a new spouse, a minister with austere habits and a gracious manner. But his austerity cloaks a severe and even sadistic personality, which threatens to ruin the lives of his new family.
The mother is trapped by laws that would give her husband sole control of the children if she rebelled. Fanny is too young and bewildered to respond with anything except confusion. Alexander refuses to buckle under, leading to a grim yet transfixing confrontation with his stepfather - a confrontation that embodies moral, ethical, religious, and familial issues Bergman has rarely tackled so directly, although they have run like scarlet threads through virtually all his films and TV dramas.
The movie doesn't sustain this level of inspiration all the way to the end, but it stays interesting even when it loses its way in a colorful diversion about an eccentric family friend who aids the youngsters. Eventually the plot is resolved, melodramatically, and the picture ends happily.
It's a rich movie, overstuffed with characters and conceits, ranging in style from social realism to ghost story. I think most critics are responding to that richness too eagerly, without questioning how much real nutrition (either artistic or intellectual) Bergman has baked into the souffle. Then too, critics who have followed the Swedish filmmaker's work for decades can't help being excited when he finally confronts the father-son issues he's been approaching obliquely until now.
I feel that excitement, too. And I'm mightily impressed with Bergman's occasional coups, such as the devastating encounter between Alexander and a vision of his late stepfather, one of the most excruciatingly self-revelatory scenes he - or any other filmmaker - has seen fit to create.
Still, I can't overlook the longueurs,m the vulgarities, the visually and verbally weak links in this ambitiously woven narrative.
Finally, a footnote on Bergman's proclamation that ''Fanny and Alexander'' sums up his life as a filmmaker, and therefore he won't make any more movies. He has made sweeping pronouncements before, as when he said he wouldn't work in Sweden again - which, if he had stuck to it, would have prevented ''Fanny and Alexander'' itself from being filmed, at least in its present form.
Second, he says he will continue to work for television as well as the stage. That should ease any worries American fans may have, since Bergman TV dramas (such as ''Scenes From a Marriage'' and ''The Ritual'') have long been exported to the United States for showing in theaters. Bergman is still a thriving and energetic talent. It's not likely the wide screen will be bereft of his gifts for long. Swiss films tour
Switzerland has emerged as a major filmmaking center in the past dozen years. In celebration of that fact, and of the talents behind it, a ''Swiss Film Week'' is beginning a goodwill tour around the United States.
The sponsors include Pro Helvetia (the Swiss Council on the Arts) and the Embassy of Switzerland. After its New York run tonight at the Bleecker Street Cinema, the series heads for Houston next month, then to New Orleans; Washington; Chicago; Minneapolis; Denver; Berkeley, Calif.; and Los Angeles, finishing its voyage with a Dallas engagement in February 1985.
Some of the entries have already played commercially in the United States and deserve the added exposure this touring program will give them. ''The Boat Is Full,'' by Marcus Imhoof, is an intelligently filmed and emotionally rich drama about refugees vainly seeking shelter during World War II. ''Les Petites Fugues'' - also known as ''The Little Escapes'' - is Yves Yersin's whimsical study of an old man whose fantasies help him face a rural life he finds confining.
While not for all viewers, Marlies Graf's documentary ''Handicapped Love'' looks compassionately at physical and emotional problems of the severely disabled. Jean-Luc Godard's short ''Letter to Freddy Buache'' is an elliptical communique from a towering French filmmaker now living and working in Switzerland, where his parents came from and where he spent many of his early years.
Other items include works by the promising Swiss director Daniel Schmid, one of which stars (and is based on a play by) the late West German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Alain Tanner, the granddaddy of the current generation of Swiss cineastes, is also represented, as is the talented Claude Goretta and others not yet so familiar to non-Swiss audiences.
All films will be shown in their original French, German, or Swiss German languages, with subtitles. A potpourri for the ear as well as the eye.