Before I watched the film LIV ULLMANN: A ROAD LESS TRAVELED at its premiere at DOCNYC, I was aware that Liv Ullman was a well-known European movie star who appeared in a number of Ingmar Bergman’s films. But I came to find out that that this now 83 year old, stillbeautiful woman, is so much more. The film is peppered throughout with interviews from well-known personalities, including Cate Blanchett, John Lithgow, Daniel Day Lewis, Jessica Chastain, and even former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.
The film is divided into three chapters, with about the first half of the film devoted to chapter one, “The Actor”. It delves into Liv’s early life — born in Japan to Norwegian parents, then leaving Japan for Toronto before the Second World War and finally moving to their homeland of Norway. It was a joy watching Liv in the present day, recounting how she told the story of The Little Match Girl to her mom’s friends, recreating the story with such expression and childlike wonder, which, according to her, planted the seed for her to become an actress. It takes us through the disappointments and triumphs of her acting career, finally being discovered by iconic Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. She then stars in a number of Bergman films and becomes “Bergman’s Muse” as quoted by actor John Lithgow. We see emotional clips of her roles in PERSONA (1966), where at 25, she plays the part of a middle-aged woman, to the Swedish film about refugees, THE EMIGRANTS (1971), for which she was nominated for an Oscar. She appears in a comedy, 40 CARETS (1973), is the only woman in the Hollywood- made A BRIDGE TOO FAR (1977) and gives an emotional performance in SCENES OF MARRIAGE (1973). Interviewee, Cate Blanchett states that Ullman’s performance in the film has served as her “acting master class”. Also, we learn that in 1977 Liv writes her first book,Changing, from which, in the doc, she reads emotional and extremely personal passages with her gentle and beautiful Norwegian-accented voice.
In Chapter Two, “The Storyteller”, we begin to see more of Ms. Ullmann’s pursuits beyond her role as an actor. She begins to write for newspapers, as mentioned above, writes a book(which becomes widely successful everywhere but in Norway!) and writes her own script, SOPHIE which she also directs. It is monumental when she is asked by Ingmar Bergman to direct a few of his films, being the only woman who has ever done so.
Finally, in Chapter Three, aptly titled “The Traveler”, we go beyond the scope of acting,directing and writing to her life as an activist, bringing her from places like the border of Cambodia, where she participated in a Freedom March to protest the treatment of the Cambodian refugees; from an orphanage in Sierra Leone, to the floor of the US Capital to speak about refugee children, and also to speaking at President Bill Clinton’s Inauguration outside the Capital Building. It was extremely heartwarming to find out that while at the orphanage in Sierra Leone, Liv saw a teenage boy named John who looked so sad. She relates seeing him to the sadness she has felt at times in her own life, and ends up taking John under her wing. She brings him to the UK, where he proves to be a brilliant student and ultimately makes a good life for himself. It is wonderful him now living in the UK with a family and kids, who call lovingly call Ms. Ullmann “Grandma Liv”.
This film is a wonderful portrait of a caring and compassionate woman who is so much more than a famous actress. The story is told by her with both emotion and humor, and by others with so much love and respect for her work, both on and off the screen. I highly recommend this film as an exemplary example of a life worthy of learning from and of living!