Each of us is going to die. As we get older, if we're wise, we face up to the fact and use it as an opportunity to examine our life and its meaning. For some, this becomes a time for spiritual growth. For others, there's only fear and denial.
Wild Strawberries, originally released in 1957, takes us inside the consciousness of Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom), a 78-year-old physician who's about to receive an honorary degree for his work. A series of dreams and chance encounters forces him to wrestle with his own mortality. His shortcomings are cruelly laid before him, and he begins to come to terms with the dark side of his personality.
As the movie opens, Borg is a hard-headed rationalist who has devoted himself to science and, in his own words, “withdrawn from all social intercourse.” His wife died 30 years ago, and his only son, Evald (Gunnar Bjornstrand), also a physician, hates him.
The night before the degree ceremony, he dreams he's on a deserted city street where the clocks have no hands. In an imaginative, disturbing sequence, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal) shows the professor watch a horse-drawn hearse lose one of its wheels and a coffin fall out. The corpse inside is Borg himself.
These images upset the professor and, on a whim, he changes his plans and decides to take a car to the ceremony instead of flying. His daughter-inlaw, Marianne (Ignored Thulin), who doesn't much like him, agrees to go along and share the driving.
The journey becomes a spiritual odyssey which triggers memories buried deep in Borg's soul. He and Marianne first stop at the lakeside villa where he spent his summers as a child. There he has a reverie in which he sees his first fiancée, Sarah (Bibi Andersson), flirt with his ne'er-do-well brother in a wild strawberry patch. He hears himself described as emotionally arid and straight arrow. Sarah later dumps him to marry his earthier sibling — a rejection which drives the young doctor deeper into himself.
Back in the present, Borg and his daughter-in-law pick up a trio of hitchhikers, a young woman (Bibi Andersson) and her two suitors. By chance, she has the same name as his first fiancée and looks exactly like her. This makes Borg and the audience look for parallels between her life and his. One of the boyfriends, Victor, wants to be a physician; the other, Anders, is studying to be Protestant minister, and as the two fight over her, Borg discerns reflections of his own repressed inner conflicts.
“How can anyone be a parson today,” Victor wonders. His atheistic views are an exaggeration of what Borg's have become. As Anders defends his calling, we can see his arguments represent the professor's religious side which he has allowed to wither away in his pursuit of science.
Their car passes a couple whose vehicle has been overturned in an accident. Borg offers them a lift. This husband and wife so despise each other that they can't restrain from quarreling in front of others. Their resentment and pain remind the professor of his own loveless marriage.
But there are also some good things in Borg's past which he has forgotten. They drive through the rural area where he had his first practice. A local gas-station owner remembers Borg's kindness and generosity to his patients and refuses to let him pay. The professor wonders if he should have remained a country doctor.
Borg also pays a quick visit to his 95-year-old mother. Marianne remarks on her cold and controlling behavior, and he sees with new clarity the psychological damage she inflicted on him.
The professor nods off near the end of the drive and experiences a set of humiliating dreams in which he appears to be on trial. He's told by his accuser that “a doctor's first duty is to ask for forgiveness.” As Borg has always been too proud to do that, he's given a punishment — “loneliness.”
In the waking world, the professor does not have a religious conversion as the result of his interior adventures. But he is willing to contemplate spiritual matters for the first time since childhood. He also comes to understand the Christian teaching that if you forgive others, you yourself may be forgiven.
Wild Strawberries dramatizes the hollowness of a life that denies itself love. In so doing, Borg has been guilty primarily of sins of omission which can be as harmful as any other kind. But the movie shows it's never to late to start over if a person is honest in his repentance. The truly sweet things of life are always there to be savored if one's heart is open and pure.
Arts and Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Washington, D.C.
In two weeks: Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life.