Released at the peak of the director’s reputation, at a time when cinema was viewed as worthy of comparison with the heights of high art, Ingmar Bergman’s film of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute was greeted with almost universal acclaim. Add to that historical context the choice of one of the composer’s most popular works and it is not difficult to understand the affection many express for the film. How well that enthusiasm wears over forty years of drastically changed expectations is another matter.
Given the fairy-tale libretto, Bergman wisely chose to emphasize the opera’s theatricality rather than make any attempt to stage in “real” locations (whatever those would be). Instead, while the action is confined to a performance in a theater, the camera has the freedom and fluidity of standard film expression. We are both outside the action with the audience shown during the overture, and to which Bergman occasionally returns, and inside the story, immersed in it with the performers. Even at its most involving, however, there is never any attempt to convince the film’s world is “real.” It remains openly stylized and physically insubstantial.
That approach assures considerable charm. At the very beginning of the opera, for example, the hero Tamino is being chased by a dragon which is clearly nothing more than a stage hand in a childish costume that looks as if it is made of felt. When the dragon is “slain,” he merely falls over and shakes his legs before expiring. It is a delightfully silly opening that announces the level of realism (or lack thereof) to expect in what follows.
To my uninformed eye and ear the performance does justice to the score. To judge from the film, the opera’s reputation as a diverting combination of frivolous fantasy and musical sophistication is warranted, and there are no obvious gaffes to mar the execution. I cannot help feeling, however, that much of the film’s reputation results from the cultural moment when it appeared more than from its ability to capture and hold the imagination. Individual moments can captivate, but they do not add up to a compelling experience. The results are more like a dress rehearsal than a finished, public performance. That impression was almost certainly not intended, but it comes close to describing how the film feels.
As Bergman’s reputation rises and falls with critical fashion, something like The Magic Flute gives ammunition to both sides of the argument. It is obviously a work of imagination, talent and commitment. Its best moments transcend any cultural assumptions simply to entertain as a work of art that moves on its own terms. Those moments are isolated and fragmented, however, and there is not enough glue binding them for the film to sustain its reputation as a major achievement. At its best, The Magic Flute is enjoyably absorbing; at its weakest, it feels tentative and under-realized.