Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni died this week, both on the same date: July 30, and both in their native countries of Sweden and Italy respectively. Not since 1616, when on April 23 both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes died in their respective countries has there been such an artistic coincidence where two giants die on the same day.
During the decade of the 1950's and especially the 1960's, Bergman and Antonioni seemed to divide the world of cinema between them, and it is their creative output, more than any other director's that led the critics and especially the public to re-evaluate cinema as a kind of unique 20th century art and not just as a commercial enterprise. In the same way that during the later part of the 19th century, Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner divided the musical world of the lyric theater between them, Bergman and Antonioni were contemporaries whose films seemed to be put together as meticulously as music, and whose sounds seemed to emerge from two different planets.
Bergman was younger, a little more prolific and popular and in his native Sweden the one director against whom every other artists was compared. Antonioni was older, more obtuse in his artistic output, not as prolific as Bergman, and had to share the limelight of Italian cinema with more popular contemporaries: Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica and the younger, controversial Pier Paolo Pasolini. His movie making was so different from those of his countrymen, however, even though they all emerged from the same Neo-Realism stew. His creations were always based on meticulously written scripts; he always used professional actors; he created a mise-en-scène that rivaled the composition of the great Italian masters of the Renaissance; and his photography was as carefully crafted and as inherently beautiful and powerful as those of Ingmar Bergman's best films. Antonioni always joked that he removed the bicycle from neo-realism, a reference to Vittorio De Sica's classic.
Together, these two artists exemplified a time when films mattered as an artistic medium. A time, not so long ago, when philosophers and poets were spoken about in the same breath as serious filmmakers. With their death a period in the history of the cinema also passes on.