Let me put it this way now: What Shakespeare is to the theater, Bergman is to cinema. Neither of them has been or is likely to be equaled. There have been other great film directors: Fellini, whom Bergman loved; Bresson, whom Bergman selectively admired; Antonioni, whom he came to appreciate; and Renoir, who mostly left him cold. But none of them so expressed the whole human being, so encompassed human variety.
Alex posted here: "Overall, Bergman nearly always surpresses politics - characters from the middle ages appear as angst-ridden moderns. Characters from the nobility of the nineteenth century appear as.....angst-ridden moderns. Making movies about other times is a perfect way to explore politics other than our own (Kurosawa Welles and Jancso utilize this method, for instance)- and Bergman ignores the opportunity he himself is creating. Bergman often creates figures who very naturally would have political pasts and activities and ignores that side of their existance."
There are a lot of Bergman films I haven't seen. Empirically I can't be certain that John Simon is wrong; or he may be wrong but at least in the ballpark. Yet nothing I've seen by Bergman suggests he gets at "the totality" of human experience. He certainly seems to register with thoroughness on one certain plane or approach to cinema, to Art. But I feel safe in saying he doesn't ever offer what Brakhage offers, or what Godard offers.
And [Bergman] never shied away from the great, tragic truths.
Strange how those people who most valorize concepts like "the great, tragic truths" never bother to illuminate or even suggest what these truths are. Let's call a spade a spade here--bereft of further elaboration, this statement almost always means, "my own deepest fears, desires, convictions of any and all kinds were affirmed by this artwork." Too timid to invoke I in this context, the commentator projects his feelings onto the totality of humanity.
He was a man who loved women, and sometimes resented them, which comes with the territory. In all his films, women figure as importantly as men, and often more so. He understood them and empathized with them; he was horrified by Hitchcock, whom he perceived as hating them. The uncut version of Scenes from a Marriage may be the profoundest movie treatment of man-woman relationships ever made.
Always it is with these encomia to male directors who are vaulted into the stratosphere for paying attention to half the population. The same sentiment behind, "This director [always male] understood women better than any other." Mizoguchi was a incredibly great director; Ophüls was an incredibly great director; Bergman may have been an incredibly great director too--do we give them a trophy or a jello mold, do we base our estimation on their greatness on our recognition of their basic attention to women? Yes, it's a political good for filmmakers to go against a few patriarchalist grains, but why must praise of this practice so often come steeped in paternalistic language ("resenting" women comes with the territory of "loving" them--sheesh)?
He also understood and loved actors as no other director did. (Renoir, in a couple of films, approached this.) He had been, briefly, an actor, and all through his life directed theater, where the actor-director relations are closer than in film. Importantly, he had a kind of resident company of film actors on whom he could rely, and for whom he tailored his screen characters--only Kurosawa had something vaguely resembling it.
When all else fails, assert without explaining. "Understanding" actors, "loving" them--this is such a cliché; I know because I've used it plenty of times in the past myself. It's lazy. For the record, more than Kurosawa had something "vaguely resembling" a company of stock actors who interacted with the filmmaker. You would think that some Weekly Standard intern would send a note to Simon pointing out this glaringly obvious fact. Simon's opinion may be that the likes of Ford, Altman, or Ozu did not use their "resident companies" as well as Bergman--but Bergman was hardly unique in this regard.
Unlike most directors, Bergman wrote most of his screenplays himself. There he exhibited his superb command of dialogue, another thing that brings him close to Shakespeare.
On this I am simply curious--does Simon, an erudite individual obviously (if frequently very wrong), speak Swedish?