Ingmar Bergman is all over "The Best Intentions" except where he is needed most of all. The powerful spirit of Scandinavia's greatest filmmaker permeates this picture, and it is no wonder, for Bergman hand-picked its director, influenced a key acting choice and wrote the intensely personal screenplay, which is based on his parents' troubled courtship and the early years of their difficult marriage.
Bergman in fact did everything but direct "Intentions," which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and the best actress award for its star, Pernilla August. Though it is not difficult to understand why he left that task to Pernilla's husband, Bille, to experience this film's three-hour length is to wish with increasing intensity that he hadn't.
This is not to say that Bille August does a sloppy or inefficient job. Quite the opposite. The Danish director, whose film "Pelle the Conqueror" won the best foreign-language film Oscar, has turned out a thoughtful and accomplished piece of filmmaking, skillfully acted and beautifully put together with a kind of discreet elegance that the biggest budget (roughly $10 million) in Swedish film history made possible.
Yet, finally, "The Best Intentions" was a job for August, and this kind of a film should never be a job for anyone. Its fateful story of headstrong lovers perennially at cross-purposes lacks something only Bergman could have given it: a deeper, more wrenching passion that would have been agonizing to sit through but would have left us with a sense, as the best films he's directed have, that our spirits had somehow been enlarged for having experienced them.
While it is not surprising that Bergman did not want the personal agony directing "The Best Intentions" would have meant, without his astringent touch the film veers instead toward high-culture soap opera. Honorable, well-mannered but not deeply troubling, it is Bergman without tears and, with the obvious exception of those films that are intentionally warm and intimate, Bergman without tears can never be Bergman at his most memorable.
Set between 1909 and 1918, the decade that just preceded Bergman's birth, "The Best Intentions" (selected theaters, Times-rated Mature) functions as a companion piece to his "Fanny and Alexander." In it we meet Henrik and Anna (the names, curiously enough, of more distant relatives of Bergman's), two young people who under ordinary circumstances would never have met, much less fallen unyieldingly in love.
Henrik (Samuel Froler) is introduced in a pre-title dispute with his grandfather, clearly a wealthy man from whom Henrik and his mother have been seriously estranged. Henrik's grandmother is dying, and her last wish is to heal the family rift. With a look of pouty implacability on his face and a stubbornness in his chin, Henrik point-blank refuses, unforgiving to an almost frightening degree.
The comfortably middle-class Anna Akerblom (August) is by contrast the doted-on favorite daughter of the most kindly of fathers (Max von Sydow) and a loving if careful mother (Ghita Norby). A bit on the spoiled side but great fun, she meets Henrik when her brother invites him to a family dinner, and from the first she can't keep her laughing eyes off his somber and uncertain ones.
Clearly, Henrik and Anna are made for each other in all the worst ways. A sensitive, tormented divinity student, proud as only the poor and aggrieved can be, he is attracted to her animated charm, to the pleasure she takes in merely living life. Anna's shrewd mother calls them "a fateful combination," she "headstrong and tender-hearted," he with "deep and early wounds beyond healing and consolation," both fated to do terrible things to each other if they stay together.
But they are in love, so of course they stay, and "The Best Intentions" chronicles it all, from the contretemps over the fiance Henrik already has to Anna's mother's fierce attempts to keep them apart to their own angry fights, miseries that Henrik's post as a pastor in the frozen far north of Sweden does nothing to alleviate.
Though the level of acting is uniformly quite high (with special nods to August, the maid in "Fanny and Alexander," who was Bergman's personal selection to play his mother, and Von Sydow for a performance of effortless grace), the true star of "The Best Intentions" is Bergman's script.
Few other writers are as adept at delineating the troubling back and forth of a relationship as he is or are so able to write the kind of spare, telling dialogue that lets you know his characters intimately and absolutely. And given the level of emotional warfare depicted, no one watching "The Best Intentions" will need wonder again why the child of this relationship grew up to make the kind of films he did.