Most importantly, they both took advantage of the silence of cinema, long moments between the words, to illuminate humankind's spiritual longings, shortcomings and blasphemies -- in exquisite imagery.
I won't go into deep histories or analyses, as there are well-prepared ones these past two days in The New York Times alone for both Bergman and Antonioni as well as what they meant together to their era. I'll just hit on a few personal experiences with their work.
Per his output of over 50 features, I've seen only a bare handful of Bergman's pictures, but I can say three of them were his international breakthrough run from 1955 to 1957.
Smiles of a Summer Night, a rare Bergman comedy -- but not without bite -- is a sexy roundelay amongst some very attractive Swedes in a period setting. There was one conversation between two female characters that was clearly so adult that there's no translation, not for 1950's America.
The Seventh Seal, arguably his most famous work (and a surprising #84 on the IMDB Top 250 list) due to the iconic image of a Crusades-weary knight playing chess for his life against Death personified. What struck me when I finally saw it wasn't so much the well-discussed angst, but again the humor, this time most black as when Death takes an actual hand in sawing down a tree to make a corpse out of the man who's climbed it.
Then there's the extraordinary Wild Strawberries, the story of an elderly, emotionally cold professor forced to examine his life and his effect on his family while on the way to receive a final accolade. Bergman cast the legendary director Victor Sjostrom who, as both a seminal Swedish filmmaker and successful Hollywood filmmaker in the 1920's, was essentially his forebearer if not father figure. Sjostrom directed maybe my favorite silent film, The Wind (1927, starring Lillian Gish at her most riveting). Being in my 20's, I wasn't looking forward to watching some old geezer dwell on his boring old past, but sure enough I was enthralled, like most everyone else who sees it.
My introduction to Antonioni was actually watching Blow-up on television, back when there were only three channels plus a grainy PBS on UHF. One of the major networks -- I think it was CBS -- started running great films on Thursday nights at 9:00pm, maybe in 1971 or so, and my parents were cinephiles enough to let me stay up way past my bedtime to see them. These were the movies that introduced me to the adult work, heaven forbid, and unlike the Disney flicks and regular TV I'd been raised on, things weren't always tied up in neat little packages.
While educated filmpeople cite L'Avventura (1960) as the ground-breaking one, or the boldness of L'Eclisse (1962) with the actorless ending that got truncated in the U.S., or Antonioni's visionary first foray into color film, Red Desert (1964), Blow-up was his first English-language film, released in 1966, and thus accessible to me as a young kid.
Both hailed and derided as a evocation of swinging mid-1960's London of the time, the unsettling story of a consciously amoral high-fashion photographer stumbling into the center of a mystery has a slow-boiling threat filled with spiritual foreboding. The famous central scene, featuring a young and impassioned Vanessa Redgrave, has the photographer witnessing what may or may not be a murder, the truth somehow depending if he caught it on film.
I was blown-away by Blow-up. Antonioni had a gift for taking a quiet, unassuming moment and turning on the acceleration to a fever pitch. He did it in the run-on-the-stock-market sequence in L'Eclisse and without a crowd in the sequence where the photographer starts enlarging one particular image from his film roll at the park, the one in which he sees something, desperate for the proof.
Another indelible scene, a more spark-like frenzy, occurs during the photographers desperate search through hip London at night, somehow winding up at a Yardbirds club gig, where impassive young audience suddenly only springs to life when guitarist Jeff Beck smashes his guitar and offers up the neck for the taking.
The movie increasingly frustrates the protagonist, and it couldn't happen to a nicer guy, leading to an open ending that's somehow simultaneously a prison and a gaping chasm, and did much to prepare me for Tony Soprano's close.
As with the work of Stanley Kubrick, I've always thought that it's okay to slow down the standard rhythms of a film, to delve more deeply into character and into the psyche, even (in Antonioni's case) the sociology of architecture, as long as you give the viewer something special to look at.
Bergman had his theatrical and spiritually loaded spaces, Antonioni his modern and spiritually empty ones. Both mesmerizing and, in sudden moments, electrifying.
Let's hope that the sadness of their collective passing yields the joy of some big screen re-releases -- it's time for a whole new generation to catch some of their genius in the cinema, not just at home on DVD.