Few, if any, cineastes are likely to make a case that Ingmar Bergman’s earlier films are on the same level as his mature ones, and I’m not going to try to start a trend. However, some of them have a refreshing sense of cinematic freedom, even playfulness. His 1953 circus drama, Sawdust and Tinsel, is a prime example. Bergman does things here that are fascinating and surprisingly lively. The story itself is somewhat grim in tone, though not so much as is often assumed. A lot of bad things happen in the film and there’s little joy to be found in the rundown Alberti Circus. In fact, there’s much here that’s downright cruel, but it seems to me less a story about how miserable life is than it’s about the basic indomitable nature of the human spirit. Bergman — much like Fellini — was drawn to traveling theater troupes, roving mountebanks and other passing charlatans. He may observe them nakedly, but he’s neither unsympathetic, nor condescending — and he’s not without humor. Here he ultimately seems to actually admire this ramshackle group. The effect is less depressing than a bare telling of the plot might seem.
As filmmaking, Sawdust and Tinsel may be seen as the work of a filmmaker still finding his voice, but that doesn’t keep his attempts from being wonderful on their own. The film isn’t many minutes old when a character tells a story — a rather cruel story at that about infidelity and personal humiliation. But he presents the story as a silent film — a stylized separate drama done in a washed-out, high-contrast look that feels like an early seaside knockabout comedy gone wrong. It’s as if a Mack Sennet short turned nasty. While there fantasticated occurrences in later Bergman, I can think of nothing quite like this, and it remains strikingly brilliant in its own right. Similarly unusual is his use of hand-held camera in some scenes. There’s a liveliness here that is often sorely missing from his mature films. What makes it so remarkable is that Bergman has made a very playful movie about very grim things. It’s quite astonishing — even more so because it works.
Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Sawdust and Tinsel Friday, Aug. 9, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library). Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com