FILM / A life in pictures

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The Independent Culture
AT ONE POINT in Bille August's The Best Intentions (12), the costume-drama which won two of the top prizes in Cannes this year, the Queen of Sweden gives an audience to the film's hero and heroine, Henrik (Samuel Froler) and Anna (Pernilla August). The purpose of the audience is to persuade the young parson to accept an appointment as chaplain at a model hospital in Stockholm, but the ailing Queen has a question that she needs to ask, despite the restrictions of protocol: 'Do you think our sufferings are sent by God?'

This is a disconcerting moment because the young man whose opinion the Queen is soliciting is the father of the modern cultural figure most closely identified with her question: Ingmar Bergman, who wrote the screenplay. Her question might nowadays quite matter-of-factly be described as Bergmanesque, but Queen Viktoria cannot of course know this at the moment of asking. The film's two identities and claims to attention, as a family saga succeeding or failing in terms of that genre, and as a source of information about a major artist, stand squarely in each other's light.

Since the film, which covers 10 years in the lives of Henrik and Anna, ends with the heroine pregnant with the future Ingmar, it incorporates no direct memories. The screenplay, being an imaginative transformation, is bound to contain elements that seem Bergmanesque over and above their source in Bergman family history. In one scene the heroine, newly infatuated, asks her old nurse if she has ever been in love. The nurse is busy preparing strawberries (hardly a neutral fruit in the context of Bergman's oeuvre, but perhaps a directorial rather than a writerly touch) and her reply could almost come from Smiles of a Summer Night: 'There was a man pulling my skirt over my head, but there was so little time to find out his intentions.'

That's the summer Bergman, at home with comedy and the body, but there's also plenty that represents the winter Bergman, the Bergman that people inevitably think of first. The screenplay is much concerned with forgiveness, its impossibility and necessity. In fact the whole of The Best Intentions could be described as an act of forgiveness, since Bergman was at odds with his parents for most of their shared lives, and only came to know them as individuals at a late stage, his mother when her health was failing, his father when a widower.

All of these points of interest, though, would disappear if the name Ingmar Bergman was removed from the credits, and it is what would be left if it was - the film as a free-standing entity, text without footnotes - that is really under review. What people will be paying to see may be a fascinating supplement to Bergman's lifework, but it is also a three-hour saga, beautifully filmed and performed, with its own problems of tone and structure.

The Best Intentions was made simultaneously for the cinema and for television, in a version twice as long. This isn't a novel procedure - in fact it is precisely the format of Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage - but it can hardly be anything but awkward. The cinema version seems to lack a number of passages that would make the point of view easier to grasp.

In the opening scene, Henrik is begged by his grandfather to forgive the wrongs done to him and to his mother by the rest of the family, and to visit his grandmother on her deathbed. Though Grandfather offers financial inducements, Henrik refuses. This piece of bitter history hangs in the air, begging to be gone into, since it seems to be formative of Henrik's character, as well as explaining his reduced circumstances, but no account is ever given. When Henrik becomes involved with Anna, her family objects to the relationship, and her mother has him investigated. She describes him to his face as someone who has received 'deep and early wounds beyond healing or compensation'. She knows more than we do. But Anna, when she persists with the relationship despite all opposition, seems unaware of the family drama that has marked her husband-to-be so deeply.

So perhaps that is the whole poignancy of the story, that a young woman escapes one sort of family hell, only to find herself making another. Perhaps, but at the crucial moment of this later part of the story, her point of view goes into eclipse. Henrik has refused the hospital chaplaincy and Anna seems reconciled to the harshness of life in the northern town of Forsboda, where their pastoral service will arguably have a greater value. She has taken into the parsonage a strange boy called Petrus (Elias Ringquist), certainly the most eerie young person in a movie since The Tin Drum, a child with thin hair and a bruised soul who has learned to read with the only material to hand: the encyclopaedia, volume J-K.

Anna sets out to help Petrus and ends up adding to the abuse he has suffered. She takes out on an innocent the rage she feels at being overruled about the glamorous chaplaincy, but the film has not properly shown us that she has been overruled, and that her defeat rankles. More attention has been paid at this point to Henrik's struggles with the local power structure, in which she seems fully to support her husband.

If Bergman's screenplay in this version scants Anna's point of view, August's camera scants Petrus. When he is left alone with little Dag, Henrik and Anna's son, knowing that he is to be expelled while Dag remains, Stefan Nilsson's music, elsewhere too determined to be haunting, builds up a real tension. But when August cuts away from Petrus's pain and instead shows the two boys from a safe distance, he betrays Bergman's legacy in a small but significant way. Bergman will be remembered perhaps less for his spiritual struggle than for his use of the close-up as an instrument of revelation.

Again and again in The Best Intentions, a perspective or an irony is established only to be submerged. The great European war is never mentioned, although it coincides with the second half of the film. We don't even hear of the traumatic Swedish general strike until Henrik's old girlfirend, Frieda, a waitress, refers to it. This might be some sort of indictment of the self-absorption of the Swedish bourgeoisie, except that a film which treats Forsboda's big bad industralist largely as a spiritual adversary of Henrik, and never gets round to telling us what is made in the Works, has no right to be critical.

The most successful scenes in the film are self-contained, immune from the structural waywardness that makes the The Best Intentions so often disappointing. Max von Sydow as Anna's father, for instance, intercepts one of her letters, in which she uses the sentence 'I love Papa' as an example of her meaningless use of the verb love before she met Henrik. He is instantly punished. It is the broader perspective of pain and forgiveness, the more remote consequences of damage - in short, its chosen subject - that the film fails in this form to communicate.

Opens in London tonight: details, facing page.

(Photograph omitted)