"Guided with a deft touch Bergman is expert at coaxing performances out of his cast."

Life, death and religion: three themes never explored more thoroughly than Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman, and, so far, never bettered. The overt stylisation of Goddard’s iconic kitsch corners the market for the recognisable but, for no-nonsense, European cinema in many veiled guises – the Berg was honing his skill earlier than you thought…

In Prison examples of Bergman’s emerging traits don’t so much subtly float by the screen as permeate the celluloid. Released back in 1949 - a time when the cinema-going public were busying themselves with Kind Hearts & Coronets, The Third Man and White Heat - the resonance of his early effort is a testament to the cast iron auteur he was on his way to becoming.

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If you thought a simple game of Death and chess was a trippy mind shag, then Prison’s film-within-a-film is the Mulholland Drive of Bergman’s repertoire.

Directing his latest movie Peter (Stig Olin) is visited by an old schoolteacher. Overzealous yet firm in his beliefs, the teacher pitches a screenplay to his pupil. Set in a world where the Devil has declared that Earth is hell, this bleak tale is non-commercial to say the least. Around dinner with friends Peter recalls the strange meeting; Thomas (Birger Malmsten), a journalist and his wife Sofi (Eva Henning) take an interest and together the story begins to take a life of its own.

Track forward one sublime credit sequence and this meta-film mind shag takes you on its dark journey, where melodrama soon merges with the surreal. Culminating in a slapstick projection of silent cinema of past. Where – his favourite theme – Death literally jumps out of a box and makes its grand cameo, a neat foreshadowing of The Seventh Seal.

Guided with a deft touch Bergman is expert at coaxing performances out of his cast. Centred on Svedlund’s doomed prostitute he utilises his muse’s vulnerability to maximum effect – the stillness of winter moment, as her isolation becomes trapped around a frozen crowd, is a standout.

Slinking along at a stealthy pace Prison’s gloomy edifice is re-built come its denouement. The ending may be bleak, it’s protagonists may have be wrenched through hell and back but, this is classic Euro cinema during its blossoming stages.

Reviewed on: 21 Sep 2006
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Religion, melodrama and an early cameo from Death himself in Bergman’s twisting metafilm.
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Director: Ingmar Bergman

Writer: Ingmar Bergman

Starring: Doris Svenlund, Birger Malmsten, Eva Henning, Hasse Ekman, Stig Olin, Irma Christenson, Anders Henrikson

Year: 1949

Runtime: 98 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Sweden


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