Dir. Bille August. Starring Samuel Froler, Pernilla August, Ghita Norby
I wonder what it says that the movie I would give to someone who had never come across a Bergman movie before would be to give them an August movie. The Best Intentions gives us for the old master what Shelby Foote referred to as looking through the wrong end of a telescope: you could understand history that way, but the clarity was never going to be right. I wish I could have watched this movie without thinking of Bergman’s parents, Erik and Karin; I wish I could have separated Henrik Bergman (Froler) from Bishop Vergerus of Fanny and Alexander. Knowing that Bergman was writing about the past which barely precedes him—and that in the same year as The Best Intentions, his son Daniel made another movie reckoning with Erik Bergman, Sunday’s Children—makes this movie sadder than it is, and more personal than most movies can aspire to be. Halfway through the movie I was thinking of them as Erik and Karin, and thinking about how their little baby Dag was going to grow up to be ambassador to Greece. This is bare fictionalization, which is the province of every biopic and every historical drama and Downton Abbey for God’s sake, and a movie is not more interesting because it was based on true events. Maybe I loved the movie because I’m prurient, and I was drawn to it the way people who like hearing “Somebody to Love” on the radio were drawn to Bohemian Rhapsody. Maybe I would have loved this movie if I had never come across Ingmar Bergman and his family history before, because it really is well made by any normal standard of what makes a movie “good.”
The title The Best Intentions is like a cloze test for the movie itself, in which there can be no doubt that the “best intentions” are a poor substitute, a receding substitute, for the best successes. Every time someone fails in this movie, which is often, the title rushes back to us. These are Henrik Bergman’s best intentions to maintain his mother’s pride at the outset of the movie; these are Anna Akerblom’s (August) best intentions to marry the man she loves within fifteen minutes. Best intentions compound, but there is too much of Henrik and Anna for them to come through even most of the time. The first scene of the movie is remarkable for its clarity and directness. Henrik is summoned by his grandfather, whose wife is dying and who wants to be reunited with Henrik and his mother. Henrik does not bend for the woman he blames for much of his family’s unhappiness; his grandfather offers him the repayment of a loan for him to go to the old woman’s bedside and make nice; Henrik’s response is as icy and obdurate as a glacier’s. Here’s a young man who refuses to betray his mother for sentiment or money, a proud man, and the more one thinks about it the pride is the key component here. We know that he is in training to enter the clergy; he will never sit around doubting some Old Testament miracle, but will he be able to hold together a parish which has strife and ill-feeling? Henrik doesn’t change. If Anna changes, it’s in the ways that women of the early 1900s are forced to change once they’re married. Yet she holds on to her social class with a fierceness; if she married one of her Uppsala beaux she could well turn into one of those haute bourgeoise termagants like her mother (Norby) by the time she were forty. As it is, she fails to do so and, against everyone’s sensibilities, marries the dour priest.
Karin literally ropes Henrik, via a yarn ball, into a discussion about his engagement to her daughter. Later on, Alma (Mona Malm) prays to God in the scene that I think strikes us most potently in the jaw. The class distinctions are particularly clear in these two scenes, separated by a not insignificant amount of time. Karin, the Heimdall of the Akerblom family, can speak face to face with her presumptive and in her mind presumptuous son-in-law. Alma has to take the matter up with the Almighty, too scared or too prudent to bring the matter up with her son’s well-bred fiancee. Karin’s objections are frank; the reason she’s made Henrik feel rudderless in his visits is the fact that she thinks he is temperamentally unsuited to marry her daughter. Alma’s are a little more abstruse, but she also lays out her bargain with God. Separate them, she prays, and if you need to punish me, punish me. But make sure they do not marry. (Alma’s gift of a necklace to Anna is as close as she can come to upbraiding the girl. Her acceptance of the gift is too flowery for Alma, who fires back that she’s used to better and hardly needs to make this much noise about it.) An argument about where they shall get married proves the mothers correct, but it also does not sink the relationship. The fight in the filthy chapel opens up to low blows; by the end of the fight, which is rather too hurtful for it to be a mere spat, Anna has even insulted Henrik’s hygiene. We know that they will make up—even if one didn’t know about their historical forbears, we’d know there was too much movie left for this to be the end—but we’re left with the question of whether or not that it’s even desirable.
The principal actors in the film are excellent. August gives the better performance of the two. There’s more of a person there, a little more range for her to show off, and August is better at expressing that range than Froler, who relies on the same few faces to get his point across. August has truly expressive eyes, a gift that one hopes actors have regardless, but few of them bring such empathy into a frame as she does when she looks at the ugly brilliant child, Petrus (Elias Ringquist) and tells him how wonderful it is he has this times tables memorized, or when she kisses Henrik’s hand. That livid loathing lives in her eyes later on, and with the same people. Bergman demanded that August play Anna, and as always with actors, he was right. She has all the brilliance of Harriet Andersson or Liv Ullmann in this movie.
Froler, for his part, plays a character who’s written to be more difficult to parse, and he’s getting a little bit of a lift from Jan Malmsjo’s diabolical turn in Fanny and Alexander. The moments where we really hate Henrik and his rigidity, his lack of humor, his self-righteousness are many, and they increase the older he gets. Some of them are fairly low-stakes, as when Anna’s brother Ernst (Bjorn Kjellman) brings a gramophone as a Christmas present. He teaches his beloved sister how to dance to the Dixieland tunes; when Anna tries to bring her husband to the impromptu dance floor with her infant son, he shoves her and leaves the building. He comes back immediately. I’m a fool, he says. I’m a ruiner of games. It’s the kindest interpretation to his cruelty. Henrik, as is the flaw of many intelligent and ambitious young men, thinks that he is in pursuit of a grail instead of employed to do a job. He refuses to leave his parish even when he is offered a promotion by the queen herself, which brings his wife to tears in the streets of Stockholm. (Later on, in a scene that should be shown to every bright college student who applies to Teach for America, one of the local women asks Henrik what he thinks he’s actually accomplishing in this remote little village.) This is put against his sincere belief in a fairly gentle and benign interpretation of Christianity and, fantastically, his support of the working man. Henrik’s great enemy in The Best Intentions isn’t his wife, as we might have believed at the outset, but Nordenson (Lennart Hjulstrom), the brusque factory owner whom Henrik refuses to play nice with. There’s a common interpretation that between 1982 and 1992 Bergman had softened on his father, based in part on the more or less positive depiction of his father in The Best Intentions. I don’t know that I necessarily buy this interpretation; as a person sours and decays, the elements which used to make him more likable must be part of the rot. Bishop Vergerus has much the same wry humor that Henrik Bergman has, and much the same profound stubbornness. What makes him a dictator as opposed to a bully is gravitas that young Bergman hasn’t earned yet.
The other common interpretation of The Best Intentions is that it might well have been another masterpiece had Bergman himself directed, and I have a hard time driving this particular thought away as well. The movie’s most heartpounding scene is one in which Petrus, certain that he is going to be sent back to his adoptive parents after a long stay with the Bergmans, decides to take matters into his own hands. In a series of cuts back and forth, we see Petrus running with the infant Dag (crying “Mama” over and over again) towards the river. It’s a powerful scene, but it’s also a little pat in August’s hands, a little too easily turned into this melodramatic rush of emotion. One can imagine Bergman shooting this differently: better close-ups on Pernilla August, more violence at the point where Henrik beats Petrus just minutes after he had made some humanistic plea about how Petrus is a human being too, man, a lengthier take on Petrus hobbling with his child weight in his arms. We get something very good, but it falls short of exceptional. We’re left with sublime moments, but not sublime sequences. Perhaps that was always too much to ask.