I’ve been over as much of Ingmar Bergman’s sometimes gloomy filmography as I can readily call to mind and while I can come up with some close calls, I can’t think of anything that’s quite as much of a downer as Shame (1968). This is a movie where things start out bad and only get that much worse over the course of its running time. I’m not saying that it’s bad movie — far from it. It’s brilliantly done. It looks terrific. The acting is phenomenal. But it is relentlessly grim, which, I suppose, is the point. However, even such films as The Seventh Seal (1957) and Wild Strawberries (1958) — which I tend to think are Bergman’s masterpieces — have moments of humor (often dark and sarcastic, but humor). The closest thing to that here is a scene where Jan (Max von Sydow) tries to shoot a chicken and can’t do it. Even this, you may suspect, is a set-up for something very uncomical that will happen later. Your suspicions will be confirmed. I’m not saying to avoid Shame, but I do think it wise to know what you’re getting into.
The story concerns Eva (Liv Ullman) and Jan Rosenberg, two unemployed musicians (like most things in the film it’s never clear why) who are eking out a bare existence on a ramshackle farm in the middle of nowhere. Possibly it is this situation that causes the obvious tension between them, but there’s no denying that their relationship is not a good one. It certainly doesn’t help that there are rumors of an impending war — something exacerbated by an increase military convoys in the area. Neither the viewer, nor the Rosenberg’s quite comprehend the nature of this war — something that gets no clearer when (in the first of several terrifying sequences) the war breaks out. It’s confusing as to which army is doing what, which cause is the better one, and, indeed, if there’s a nickel’s worth of difference. I’m not even sure what the shame of the title refers to, because there is no shortage of possibilities for the accolade. This is actually the film’s greatest strength — its central ambiguity as the war wears away the last remaining shreds of their humanity. Neither the characters, nor we understand what is driving them to the story’s grim conclusion. It’s powerful stuff, but not for everyone.
Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Shame Friday, Aug. 29, 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