Karin's Face is the very definition of a minor work, a 14-minute photo montage cut together by director Ingmar Bergman and editor Sylvia Ingemarsson by the end of 1983 that didn't see the light of day until 1986, when it was broadcast on Swedish television. Even so, I have the impression that it is one of the director's best-known projects from the long slow exhalation his career underwent in the wake of 1982's Fanny and Alexander, it was, at any rate, the first one I had ever heard of, in the context of a couple very warm, supportive reviews. And that's just exactly the kind of reviews the film deserves: small and minor as it is, it has still been put together with some substantial delicacy and thought. Certainly, compared to Bergman's only other short film, the "Daniel" segment from the 1967 anthology film Stimulantia, Karin's Face is the superior work by a substantial margin, finding the director using some strategies for creating an experimental portrait with far more care than the way he kind of bullied his way through the footage of his infant son.

The Karin whose face we will be substantially concerned with over the 14 minutes is Karin Bergman née Åkerblom, the director's mother, who had passed away in 1966 at the age of 76. The film consists of three things, of which the two that matter less are a scant handful of title cards giving us a couple of quick pieces of context (damn quick; the last one, heavy with pregnant meaning, consists solely of the word "illness"), and a solo piano score composed and performed by Bergman's ex-wife, Käbi Laretei. The other thing is photographs taken from Karin's youth to her young womanhood, with a few from her married life, and one last image that anchors the movie from almost exactly its beginning to almost exactly its end: her first and only passport photo, taken about a month before her death. This image haunts the whole of the movie, which otherwise proceeds in chronological order, a memento mori simmering beneath what could easily have otherwise just been a pleasant, nostalgic tribute to a woman the director clearly loved.

As it is, the film's emphasis on less and death, on the conspicuous absence of Karin in her son's life, shoots the film through with a vein of subdued but persistent regret. The procession of photographs tells a straightforward story: the young Karin is a lively figure, with bright and smiling facial expression; the married Karin is a somber figure, rarely the focal point of photographs, and present in fewer photographs. It is a harsh and direct statement that bluntly lays out Bergman's feelings about both of his parents: Karin was a warm, good-natured soul who found herself tamped down by her marriage to the strict Lutheran pastor Erik Bergman, a man whose ghost had haunted several of Bergman's film's prior to this, never as a positive figure (culminating in his symbolic representation in Fanny and Alexander, where the director more or less states outright, and presumably hyperbolically, "I would have been happy if my dad had burned to death"). The fact that Karin's last photograph is for her passport, and that we are conspicuously told that it was her first passport, suggests a life not lived to the fullest, with Karin only starting to stretch her wings at the end of her life, when there was no more time to do anything with it. The photos we see of her and Erik reinforce the feeling that she is keeping something tamped down: they are stiff and lack the fresh excitement we see elsewhere.

Bergman makes this argument using hardly any words, none of them spoken, and the mordant plunk of Laretei's piano, and some deft manipulations of the photos themselves, working with cinematographer Arne Carsson to choose what parts to focus on, how to move them (rarely) to suggest a movement between and through the images themelves. And most importantly, the film has been very judiciously edited to create a rhythm through literally nothing other than shot duration. There are flurries of quick cutting early on, sweeping us through Karin's busy early years and the large number of pictures covering them, with privileged moments being given that privilege in large part through the editing deciding to pause on them and hold them out for our extended attention. He and Ingemarsson also use some very cautiously-chosen dissolves to blur the different stages of Karin's life, notably in one exceptionally powerful moment near the end where the two most commonly-repeated photographs are explicitly connected, giving the whole film a kind of circular shape.

It's all very simple - Bergman was, I have noted before, neither an intuitive avant-garde filmmaker nor an intuitive documentarian, and Karin's Face essentially asks him to be both of those simultaneously - but it is clear and elegant, and these 14 minutes move with a deliberate urgency not found in "Daniel", giving the film a sense of time passing inexorably. It's an emotionally intuitive film rather than an intellectually sophisticated one, focused mostly on a loving son's wistful knowledge that his mother's life force was constrained by an excessively sober marriage, doing the only thing he can think of to pay tribute to that life force and thank her for being such a force for good and nourishing feelings in his own life. It's tiny and minimalist, but so rich in sincerity that it feels a shame to write it off as an odd little curio in Bergman's filmography; it is, on the contrary, a potent piece of critical nostalgia ,and would be even without placing it in the context of the director's late turn towards memory pieces as a way of summing up his career.