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Morality Play


In Ingmar Bergman’s and Liv Ullmann’s new film “Faithless” (he wrote the script, she did the filming), a relationship between a man and a woman is described as “friendship in damnation.” While this phrase would fit male-female relationships in many Bergman films and is exceptionally apt in “Faithless,” it certainly does not describe the professional relationship between Bergman, the Swedish author and director, and Ullmann, the Norwegian actress turned director.

Though Bergman and Ullmann disagree on important subjects -- God, love, death, art -- their artistic collaboration has contributed to more outstanding films than that of any other two artists in the history of movies, including “Persona” (1966), “Cries and Whispers” (1973), “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973), and “Private Confessions” (1997). “Faithless” may be another Bergman and Ullmann masterpiece.

In John Lahr’s book, Show and Tell: New Yorker Profiles, Ullmann says of Bergman: “He is connected to his creativity, but not necessarily to the world.” The statement can serve as a succinct characterization of one of Bergman’s predominant cinematic preoccupations. Most of the films he wrote and directed, from “The Seventh Seal” and “The Magician” in the 1950s, through “Fanny and Alexander” and “After the Rehearsal” in the 1980s, reveal his intense interest, if not obsession, with the artist’s creative role in society. Almost every Bergman film has an artist as an important character, frequently serving as an alter ego for Ingmar. In “Faithless,” the artistic alter ego is named Bergman. When Ullmann asked Ingmar Bergman why he gave the character that name, he replied that he couldn’t think of any other.

“Faithless” may be Bergman’s most introspective script. The plot, if the film can be said to have one, springs from an incident that occurred in Bergman’s life years ago and disturbed him for a long time. Though he tried to write about it for years, he could not. Perhaps in finally writing the script, he is seeking not only an emotional catharsis, but also a spiritual cleansing.

In “Faithless,” a famous stage and film director named Bergman (Erland Josephson), now elderly, looks back on a relationship he had with a married actress who has died. Josephson’s Bergman looks at the past through the eyes of the actress, Marianne (Lena Endra), whom he has called from his memory to act as his muse and perhaps as his accuser. Here we have an artist, the director, allowing another artist, the actress, to recall and interpret his memories for him -- something like what Ingmar Bergman has done in choosing Ullmann to direct his film.

Revealed in flashbacks, Marianne’s memories are terribly painful. She tells of her happy marriage to a concert conductor, Markus (Thomas Hanzon), of their 9-year-old daughter, Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo), and of a long love affair she had with David (Krister Henriksonn), who is Josephson’s Bergman at a younger age. The affair is entered into casually, but its repercussions seem infinite, its fallout endless as people are deeply wounded and lives are destroyed.

Once preoccupied with the silence of God, in “Faithless” Bergman provides no space for God. His cinematic alter ego lives alone on an island, recalling past sins but achieving no absolution, not even forgiveness from himself. Though free of God, he is certainly not free of guilt.

The daughter Isabelle’s presence in the story is particularly disturbing because, rather than suggesting some hope for the future, it suggests the opposite. She is not only the physical offspring of Marianne and Markus, but the psychological and spiritual offspring of the film’s faithless adults. She will inherit the hell created by her elders. “Faithless” is almost a gloss on the Old Testament adage that the sins of the parents will be visited on the children.

Part of Ingmar Bergman’s genius throughout his film career has been to probe deeply into his own psyche, creating films that are deeply personal but not private. The story of “Faithless” could have been filmed in such a way that it might seem an exercise in narcissism. Ullmann must be given credit that this did not happen. She took Bergman’s script and was in charge of everything else related to getting “Faithless” to the screen, with no involvement from Bergman.

With each of the four feature films she has directed, Ullmann has grown in her mastery of moviemaking. Critical reaction to “Faithless” suggests that Ullmann has joined a special pantheon of European directors whose films are a marvelous mix of metaphysics and mystery: Bergman, Robert Bresson, Luis Buñuel, Federico Fellini, Krzysztof Kieslowski. Ullmann has beautifully filmed those frightening monosyllables: to be, to live, to love, to pray, to die.

Commenting on “Faithless,” Ullmann has said, “To live in a state of unfaithfulness at the turn of the millennium is simply a way of life that more and more people choose to live, and traditional moral dictates disappear. … As the director of this film, I believe the light in the story is that we can forget the hours that were full of suffering. What we must never forget is what they have taught us.”

Ullmann has stated her belief that God is within us. If present in the characters of “Faithless,” God must be crying. Yet with some kind of movie magic, Ullmann has taken a story in which no one responds to grace, in which there is not even a hint of redemption, and without being either pedantic or preachy, she has turned it into a cinematic morality play. As Ullmann said, “Watching the film you may start thinking: ‘I will think about my choices -- who do they involve?’ ” How many will have that reaction to the film I can only guess. I do know that this priest did.

Fr. Robert Lauder is professor of philosophy at St. John’s University, Jamaica, N.Y. His e-mail address is lauderr@stjohns.edu

National Catholic Reporter, March 2, 2001