Presented on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection, Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician tells the story of a mute Dr. Volger (Max von Sydow) having to prove his magical abilities to Stockholm authorities in 1846. Though told and presented in a unique way, this is a familiar tale as its theme of science versus magic, reason versus faith is a constant conflict between men and also within one’s own thinking. The subject has been and will be covered many times over in various art forms.
Dr. Volger ‘s Magnetic Health Theater is a traveling troupe “ruined financially, wanted by the police”. They are comprised of Volger’s ward, Mr. Aman (Ingrid Thulin); Vogler’s grandmother (Naima Wifstrand), a former opera singer; Simson the coach driver (Lars Ekborg), and Tubal (Åke Fridell) his manager. On their way to Stockholm, they find an actor, Johan Spegel (Bengt Ekerot) dying in the woods and give him a ride.
Upon arriving in Stockholm, they are taken to the home of Consul Egerman (Erland Josephson) where two other town officials, Police Superintendant Starbeck (Toivo Pawlo) and Minister of Health Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Bjornstrand), put their powers to test before allowing them to be unleashed on the public. Vergerus asks Vogler to make him experience a vision on the spot and fails. The troupe is allowed a night’s rest and will be expected to perform the next day.
While in the house the viewer witnesses different people in the house’s reaction to the troupe and to “magic”. The Consul’s wife thinks they are there to provide comfort after she lost a child. The staffs mingle in the kitchen and partake of a different kind of comfort from each other after sampling Granny’s love potions. Vergerus on the other hand reveals to Aman, “You represent what I detest most of all – the unexplainable.” But he doesn’t just detest it. He also fears it as well as evidenced by his reactions when he dealing with a ghost.
The Magician is very enjoyable as it mixes comedy and drama, and presents some thought-provoking conversations between characters. It also turns out to be one of Ingmar Bergman’s more personal tales. The extras and liner notes reveal the story can be seen as an artist against his critics, a struggle Bergman frequently had, but the viewer needs to know more about the director and his work than is presented here.
The Blu-ray presents the film with a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The black and white photography looks exquisite. Blacks are deep and inky with no crush taking place as objects show separation. The shades across the gray scale are well rendered and contribute to a sharp contrast. There is a great scene that plays with light and shadow as Antonsson and Simson sit around the table during a thunderstorm. The one issue is when the troupe are led by guards a bit of hair can be seen in lower frame. The audio is a Swedish mono track. While that has limitations, the dialogue sounded clear and there were no flaws from the source.
The Features include two interviews. There is a brief Swedish television appearance shot in 1967. Persona is cited as his latest film, but there is a reference to The Magician, and Bergman tells a parable about a Chinese woodcarver that relates to himself. An audio interview from 1990 with French filmmaker Olivier Assayas and Swedish author/documentary filmmaker Stig Bjorkman covers Bergman’s life. The Magician is mentioned in the last couple minutes but he doesn’t say much about it other than referring to the cast. Also, Peter Cowie narrates a visual essay that looks at the film and where it fits in with Berman’s other work. The booklet contains two essays and an excerpt from Bergman’s autobiography Images: My Life in Film.