After nearly a quarter of a century writing and directing for the big screen, Ingmar Bergman turned his hand to the more intimate medium of television. This might seem a strange move – after all Bergman was at the time one of the undisputed giants of auteur-led world cinema, with a string of critical hits and even Academy recognition. At the time, Bergman was the head of the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theatre and had been criticised for some of the performances. This should come as no surprise, Bergman’s film work has always been unapologetically frank in regards to sexual and psychological politics.
The Rite is Bergman’s response to his critics and where better than via the most accessible medium possible. What is so striking is the way in which Bergman has an uncanny affinity with a very different way of presenting ideas. Rather than recreate film conventions The Rite is claustrophobically televisual in its outlook, there are few medium shots, let alone establishing ones (perhaps trying to echo Dreyer’s trial film The Passion of Joan of Arc), which is both disorientating but specific.
Three travelling actors are interrogated by a magistrate on the grounds of obscenity and public lewdness. The film is split into nine distinct scenes, emphasising the theatrical bent of the work and its relationship with both Bergman and the viewing public, each set in one distinct location. Each alternate scene is set in the interrogation room as the inquisitor takes it in turn to try and break down the psychological and sexual motivations of the three players and their bizarre, unconventional love triangle where their art and public face seem to blur. The judge is informed that Thea suffers fits causing her to become lewd and clearly the evidence shown reveals her to be sexually disturbed – she is nymphomaniacal to the point of hysteria but blanks out at crucial moments making it difficult to ascertain how much of the inquisitor’s subsequent rape of her is part of her psychosis or part of an elaborate act. Certainly her relationship with her two partners is unusual – ostensibly the wife of Sebastian she spends most of her time in sexual situations with Hans, who is impotent and unable to satisfy her cravings.
Although the nature of the troupe’s performances are never explicitly indicated, the backstage bickering, with Thea in of all things a provocative clown costume, imply that their work is of some fetishised and ritualistic nature, emphasised by the climactic show to the judge. In this the leather clad performers (unfortunately with suits looking suspiciously like the alien uniforms from Edward D Wood jnr’s Plan Nine From Outer Space) don masks and, in the case of the male performers, large ornate penises as they instigate the judge into their ritualistic "pantomime".
The Rite is at times strikingly bleak (in a manner occasionally like an X-rated edition of The Prisoner) and alienates its audience as much as it intrigues them. Key to the stifling atmosphere is the fact that there are effectively only four actors in the entire piece (should you ignore the odd hand creeping in shot to offer another drink), even the confessional scene neglects the priest (Bergman) for the most part. It is also, for television and certainly for the time, graphic in its open discussion of sexual politics and in the open nature of the troupe’s performances. The underlying themes of art versus censorship, and the State versus the artist, are starkly stated but there is a feeling that art needs to be confrontational, that artists can, even should, be in someway psychologically scarred, that matters of taste and decency have no reason to be raised in comparison to free expression. The Rite’s disturbing and bleak message leaves no real victors even if the artists appear to triumph over the hypocritical State’s subjugation of free expression. An intriguing television debut quite unlike any other, this is the grounding for Bergman’s future forays into the medium.