One figure looms above all others in a boy's imagination: tyrant and clown, hero and coward, monster and saint, beloved and despised. Of course I describe the boy's -- any boy's -- own father, with whom some sort of rapprochement must be reached.
On the evidence of "The Best Intentions," Ingmar Bergman, age 74, is still trying to reach that rapprochement.
The movie, opening today at the Senator, is a massive stab at rapprochement. It's three hours long, but that's OK, because it feels much longer. Still, like a trip to the museum or a spoonful of medicine, "The Best Intentions" is good for you, however formidable it might seem. It could be described as many, many chilly scenes in winter. It's the story of Bergman's parents, their courtship and marriage. How much courage it must have taken to write! (Bille August, the Dane who directed "Pelle the Conqueror," directs from Bergman's script.)
Bergman is no pious sentimentalist, no purveyor of nostalgic homilies; he hasn't romanticized his parents into distant, mythic figures: he examines them and especially his father with clinical, almost savage, detachment. The portrait is complex, depressing, endlessly textured and the haunted couple emerges as a sort of Swedish Gothic, with snow shovels instead of pitchforks.
Father is a dour, intelligent, painfully earnest divinity student named Henrik Bergman (played brilliantly by Samuel Froler), himself the issue of a dysfunctional family; he yearns desperately to do good, to perform his duty, to minister to the world's agony. But at the same time, he can't stop having sex with a waitress.
This goes on during his courtship with a young woman of higher station. Anna Ankerblom (Pernilla August) hails from a prosperous bourgeoise family, nominally headed by patriarch Max Von Sydow, but in reality administered by his wife (Ghita Norby), who might be described as an iron fist in an iron glove. The mother does not approve of the young man: and she maneuvers relentlessly to destroy the courtship. Only the death of the father changes her attitudes; and so it is the Anna and Henrik becomes the Bergmans. No, they are not the Nelsons or the Cleavers or the Youngs.
Henrik is sent to a far northern village and even exiled further into a sub-chapel on the far side of town. The wind whistles, the dark river thunders over the cold stones, the snow blows through the sharp air like gunsmoke and these two people try to make a life. The fault lines are obvious: his rectitude, her gaiety; his working-class bitterness, her bourgeoise sense of well-being; his commitment to duty, her commitment to family. And finally: her lightness, his darkness.
No theory can adequately explain Henrik's deep current of melancholy, a current his middle son Ingmar, who may be glimpsed as the bulge in Anna's belly late in the movie, clearly inherited. But there it is: a kind of morbidity that somehow bedevils his every move, though there comes a moment when conventional happiness seems his for the taking (he is offered the posh chaplaincy of a Stockholm hospital of which the Queen herself is patron). But he cannot allow himself to grasp it. From there, things spiral out of control.
An altercation with a wealthy family leads to inevitable social catastrophe; labor troubles grip the village and his unswerving devotion to the workers again undercuts his position; a dysfunctional orphan who comes to stay with the Bergmans is not cured but driven further into strangeness by his exposure to them.
Gradually, it falls apart: We see, in the end, a marriage that exists in name only, two sullen partners yoked together by propriety but not affection, set to launch a new generation of intelligent, haunted dysfunctionals into the world, one of whom will become a great film director and retell their story.
The genius of the film is the way it manages to expand nimbly from particular to archetype: As exact and specific and detail-perfect as Henrik and Anna Bergman are visualized, they are at the same time families everywhere, toting their twisted burden of woe, trying to relate and unify but somehow merely dissolving in what can only be called a quiet, discreet and very slow explosion.
'The Best Intentions'
Starring Samuel Froler and Permilla August.
Directed by Bille August.
Released by Goldwyn.