While there’s life, there’s hope

A night out at an open-air movie theater is one of the most pleasant of modern Greek traditions, no matter what the viewing material. Until not long ago, the films screened were generally recent releases. However, in the last decade, it has become customary for many cinemas to play older art-house fare, and Athenians have embraced the opportunity to watch classics – obscure or otherwise – on the big screen. The films of Ingmar Bergman, one of the 20th century’s most important film directors, have become part and parcel of the Attic summer, and this year, fortunately, is no different. The Panathinaia is currently screening one of his lesser-known films, 1958’s «Brink of Life» (also known as «So Close to Life»). Shot right after «Wild Strawberries» and «The Seventh Seal,» this sparse ensemble film won him the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival the same year, and his four lead actresses shared the female acting award between them. Much simpler in scope than his two previous efforts, «Brink of Life» is set almost entirely in one room of a maternity ward. The theme of motherhood is explored through the stories of three very different pregnant women, and the silent, smiling nurse who takes care of them. Almost documentary-like, the film opens with a terrified Cecilia (Ingrid Thulin) being wheeled into a room. Her husband (Erland Josephson) comforts her by ominously telling her to do her duty. The sheet covering Cecilia is bloodstained, and a doll is thrown carelessly at the foot of the trolley; this seemingly random juxtaposition is one of the few moments the minimalist director makes his presence known. Cecilia has had a miscarriage, and this miscarriage serves as her character’s cathartic moment; she exists in a Buddha-like serenity for the rest of the film as feelings of inadequacy and a fear of motherhood melt away when she realizes that the baby «left» because it knew it was not wanted. She is content to live alone forevermore – and thus the miscarriage becomes an event filled with hope instead of dread. The theme of inadequacy in motherhood was revisited more darkly by Bergman eight years later, in his quasi-surrealist masterpiece «Persona.» Stina (Eva Dahlbeck) is the opposite of Cecilia. A happy buxom blonde with a loving husband (Max von Sydow) who picks flowers for her every day, she is almost fey in her behavior as she impatiently waits for «Him» to pop out. Bergman regular Bibi Andersson plays Hjordis, a wayward teenager who insists on having an abortion because she is too scared to tell her mother that a man who will not marry her has gotten her pregnant. Hjordis is brusque with the doctor who tells her how lucky she is; she is later abashed when she learns that the doctor has herself suffered numerous miscarriages, and will most likely never bring a child to term. The naturalist atmosphere of the film (apron straps that insist on falling, actors with crooked teeth and flyaway hair) is brought to a climax in one of the most disturbing scenes of childbirth ever captured on film. The screams are otherworldly, and the 1950s method of anesthesia will bring a chill to anyone who watches it. «Brink of Life,» a film filled with women – but certainly not geared solely toward women – is a study in exceptional direction and extraordinary performances with the barest of budgets. Without wagging any fingers, it reminds us of the fragility of life, and its ending, while bordering on moral allegory, is rather touching. If only the man whose phone rang three times and merrily chatted his way through miscarriages and heart-to-hearts had been paying attention. But then, that is always one of the risks one takes when venturing into a Greek open-air cinema. The Panathinaia Cinema (Mavromichali & Alexandras, tel 210.642.5714) plays «Brink of Life» at 9 and 11 p.m. today and tomorrow.