Made in 1958, a year after my favorite Bergman film, The Seventh Seal, it starts out similarly to that film. A troupe of entertainers are traveling across the countryside by carriage, only this time it's not the Middle Ages, but 1846. The travelers include a mysterious magician/Mesmerist named Albert Vogler (Max Von Sydow), who wears a fake beard and wig and is mute. He is accompanied by his wife (Ingrid Thulin), who poses as a young man, a loud and vulgar master of ceremonies (Åke Fridell), and Vogler's ancient grandmother (Naima Wifstrand), who sells love potions and tells people she's 200 years old.
Hearing reports of strange occurrences at his performances, the leaders of the town compel the troupe, who call themselves Vogler's Magnetic Health Theater, to perform for them. They are a bureaucrat, Egerman (Erland Josephson), his sexually frustrated wife (Gertrud Fridh), the pompous and toupeed Chief of Police (Toivo Pawlo), and most diabolical, a Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand). Josephson and Björnstrand have bet, with the doctor taking the position that there is no such thing as the supernatural, and he means to expose Vogler as a fraud.
Knowing Bergman's other films helps here, as he re-uses character names. Vogler was also the name of the mute Liv Ullman in Persona, Egerman was a name he used frequently for ridiculous bureaucrats and noblemen, and Vergerus was a name used for the villainous, most memorably for me as the treacherous clergyman in Fanny and Alexander.
The film's Swedish title is Ansiktet, The Face, and it ties in with Bergman's recurring theme of the masks people wear, which can be found in almost every film he ever made. Von Sydow, of course, is wearing a disguise, as is Thulin, but we all wear some sort of mask during the course of our lives. But beyond that Bergman explores, in a parallel manner, two antagonisms--art vs. science, and the artist vs. his audience.
In the supplemental materials, Peter Cowie relates that this film was made at the end of a seven-year run Bergman had as the director of a theater in Malmo. He was fed up with the audiences he was getting, and vented his spleen by depicting Vogler's audience as hypocrites and liars (early on, Thulin reads from a book that a land was so rife with deception that those who told the truth were seen as the biggest liars). Von Sydow can hardly stand to be in their presence.
That is the innermost layer, but the more easy to spot is the battle between art and science, as well as the other things symbolized by the fatcats in the audience--authority and bureaucracy. Björnstrand tells Thulin, as he tries to seduce her, "You represent what I hate the most--the inexplicable."
The Magician also has an underlying sense of menace, starting with the carriage ride through spooky woods, when they find an old actor who seemingly dies (no one seems to stay dead in this film), and climaxes with one of the most frightening sequences I've ever seen, when the presumed ghost of Von Sydow menaces Björnstrand.
Whether seen as Bergman's "fuck you" to his bourgeois audience or as a chilling tale of suspense, The Magician only adds to my esteem for the great director.