It is one of the delightful paradoxes of cinema history that Ingmar Bergman, a director so prodigiously gloomy that his very name is enough to evoke phrases like ”torment” and ”the silence of God,” has, on occasion, been responsible for some of the richest celebrations of the human spirit ever seen on the screen. I’m thinking of sublime comic romances like Smiles of a Summer Night and The Magic Flute. Now, nearly a decade after he announced his retirement from filmmaking, the 74-year-old Bergman has written the script for The Best Intentions, a loving, three-hour-long chamber drama — distilled from a six-hour Swedish TV miniseries — based on the early years of his parents’ marriage.
Directed by Bille August, a Danish filmmaker chosen especially by Bergman, the new movie, which took the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, never quite scales the heights of those previous ”happy” Bergman films. Though handsomely shot, it feels like a TV drama, in part because August has a galumphing sense of rhythm; even his best movies, like the Oscar-winning Pelle the Conqueror (1988), are needlessly slow (a flaw I’ve always attributed to his emulation of Bergman).
Nevertheless, The Best Intentions is the most moving film I’ve seen this year. Set in the waning days of Victorian Sweden, it’s a different sort of Bergman movie — a pre-Freudian Scenes From a Marriage. Watching it, one basks in the love Bergman obviously has for his parents. Yet this is no starry-eyed valentine. For Bergman’s famous demons are here, in embryonic form. In The Best Intentions, he traces the delicate dance of sensibilities in a modern couple, the way that even a marriage rooted in devotion can evolve into a complex — and painful — union of souls.
The first half plays like a Merchant-Ivory comedy of manners, as Henrik Bergman (Samuel Froler), a penniless, handsome, and emotionally reserved seminary student, wins the hand of the feisty and strong-willed upper-class princess Anna (Pernilla August), much against the wishes of her demanding mother. The two wed and move to the frozen north, where Henrik has received an appointment at an out-of-the-way country church, and where the marriage seems to do them both good.
Nurtured by his wife, Henrik grows warmer and bolder. Anna, united with her husband in his work, acquires a more generous spirit. The differences in temperament remain, though. Placid on the surface, Henrik has small, intense eyes, his hidden fury emerging in swift explosions of violence. The expression of pent-up, neurotic rage has always been the flame that lights Ingmar Bergman’s psychodramas. Here, his father’s anger is channeled into a puritan self-righteousness that keeps threatening to capsize the marriage.
Finally, it does. Furious at her husband’s solitary obsession with his parish, Anna takes their small child and leaves him. The marriage seems over. Yet the stage has merely been set for a reconciliation scene that is so quietly wrenching it feels at once tragic and utterly blissful. The two lead performers are superb, especially Pernilla August (the director’s wife), whose radiant sensuality and pride evoke an entire Bergman universe of emotionally engulfing women. In the end, Bergman leaves his mother and father sitting on twin park benches, united yet separate, their love destined to outlive — yet never quite heal — the wounds they’ve inflicted on each other. And what of little Ingmar, already growing in his mother’s womb? He, of course, will absorb it all — the love and the wounds. A