- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 3, 2001

The spellbinding "Faithless" suggests that the team of Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, esteemed as director and leading lady from the mid-1960s through the late '70s, has been rejuvenated impressively as a writing-directing partnership.

The two also collaborated on the 1997 "Private Conversations," with Mr. Bergman as screenwriter and Miss Ullmann as director, but I still haven't seen that film.

The pair's new movie can be seen locally at the Cineplex Odeon Janus.

Mr. Bergman, 82, retired from film directing 20 years ago. Miss Ullmann, 60, shifted behind the camera in the early 1990s. Mr. Bergman has continued to write screenplays, including a set about his parents that began in 1989 with the formidable domestic drama "The Best Intentions," directed by Bille August. The set continued with "Sunday's Children," which was directed by Daniel Bergman, the famous filmmaker's son, and may or may not have concluded with "Private Conversations."

We're invited to confuse one of the characters in "Faithless" with the elder Mr. Bergman. Erland Josephson, frequently matched with Miss Ullman in Bergman films of the 1970s, appears as a solitary, memory-haunted figure who is called Bergman in the script. He occupies an island residence within starkly picturesque strolling distance of rocky beaches on Faro, Mr. Bergman's own hideaway spot on the Baltic Sea, just northeast of Gotland.

Mr. Bergman's study on Faro has been re-created for the film's primary interior setting. Behind his desk, an alcove containing a movie projector is occupied suddenly by a shadowy figure, soon identified as a muse or phantom from the past called Marianne Vogler. The name itself has specific Bergmanesque echoes: Max von Sydow and Ingrid Thulin played a couple named Vogler in "The Magician" of 1957; Miss Ullmann made her debut with Mr. Bergman as the silent Elisabeth Vogler in "Persona" in 1966; and Miss Ullman was a Marianne whose marriage soured in the 1974 television serial "Scenes From a Marriage."

The Marianne who becomes the protagonist of "Faithless" is portrayed by a vivid and sometimes brilliant Lena Endre. The character is on familiar terms with her venerable host. Indeed, she more or less narrates the ensuing scenario inside the study, which can be viewed metaphorically as the Bergman imagination, an echo chamber in which memories and a bad conscience reverberate expressively.

An extended memoir that approaches epic movie length at 142 minutes, Marianne's account displays an often cunning dexterity when shifting from reverie or soliloquy to enactment. Perhaps making a virtue of limited production resources, Miss Ullmann tends to delay the switch from narration to depiction a bit longer than one expects, enhancing the suspenseful potential in the transitions.

"Faithless" eventually emerges as the chronicle of a bad love affair, a scarcely novel pretext with Mr. Bergman or movie fiction at large. In this case, it is individualized and distilled effectively.

A theatrical actress, Marianne fecklessly indulges a liaison with a lecherous colleague, a director named David, played by Krister Henriksson. At first glance, he seems as comic and presumptuous a seducer as Tom Ewell in "The Seven Year Itch." Ultimately, a mixture of vanity, contempt and malice corrodes the disarming aspects, leaving David with a peculiarly and persuasively treacherous profile.

Stray hints, including an evocative prop, suggest that Mr. Bergman is willing to be mistaken for a prototype of the troublemaking David. Or blame the Ingmar Bergman of 25 to 30 years ago, if you like. But to insist on autobiographical matches or guilt feelings would seem idle because the characters achieve fragmentary but ominously distinctive, authentically suffering lives of their own.

The odd man out appears to be Marianne's husband, an orchestra conductor named Markus, played by Thomas Hanzon. Certain delayed and compromising revelations are contrived to complicate our view of his motives. Suffice it to say, he is not a cuckold beyond reproach.

The obvious innocent victim is Isabelle, the withdrawn and pensive child of Marianne and Markus. Embodied by Michelle Gylemo, the character is kept out of the direct line of marital conflict for the most part.

Isabelle doesn't quite have to be there as an acting presence to reinforce certain emotions. For example, Miss Endre is powerful enough as a woman in emotional turmoil when sustaining a monologue in which Marianne must tell Isabelle that Markus will have custody of her while divorce proceedings play out. The new arrangement will leave the mother domiciled with the boyfriend.

No one associated with the movie seems to mistake this for a desirable state of affairs. Miss Ullmann and her leading lady don't pull many punches when expressing shame and remorse about primal weaknesses and betrayals. Forms of gratification that appease hungers in Marianne, David and Markus are considered profoundly abusive and menacing to Isabelle.

Mr. Bergman evidently left the entire production to Miss Ullmann's discretion, ending his role after completing the final draft of his screenplay. Their backtracking story fabric isn't as seamless or untattered as it might be, but the plot keeps ramifying in surprising ways, dredging up freshly compelling scenes about the wages of betrayal.

Miss Endre has a set-piece monologue on the theme of erotic surrender and degradation that rivals Bibi Andersson's confession in "Persona." Although the characterization seems dubious and alienating in some respects, Miss Endre's performance commands a heap of respect.

Diverting minor characters played by very adept actors pop into view with enjoyable frequency: Philip Zanden as a family lawyer, Therese Brunnander as a social worker, Marie Richardson as a divorce lawyer who advises Marianne to "keep it quiet" when she gets pregnant by David, and Juni Dahr as a mysterious informant saved for a closing slash of irony.

Moviegoers who find the central triangle intriguing may want to return for a second look, to scrutinize the actors more closely for their concealed or ambivalent motives in scenes that precede climactic revelations.

Although I had not been expecting a nostalgic revival of interest in Mr. Bergman and Miss Ullmann (who also shared a romantic liaison during their earlier collaboration), the appearance of "Faithless" makes a strong case for renewed appreciation of the Bergman tradition. Miss Ullmann masters the sort of chamber-drama intensity and concentration that distinguished Mr. Bergman in his directing prime.

When unhappiness wells up and surges out of Miss Endre, the effect is almost gladdening, despite the context. The heroine may be miserable, but it's like old home week for veteran Bergmanites, who became accustomed to encounters between aggrieved and neurotic characters who tended to excel at being hateful to each other.

How effective and characteristic is this late-blooming, freshly minted Bergman classic? It should leave Woody Allen limp with envy and admiration.{*}{*}{*}1/2TITLE: "Faithless"RATING: No MPAA rating (Adult subject matter and treatment, consistent with the R category — occasional profanity and sexual candor, including brief interludes of nudity and simulated intercourse).CREDITS: Directed by Liv Ullmann. Written by Ingmar Bergman. Cinematography by Jorgen Persson. Art direction by Goran Wassberg and costumes by Inger E. Pehrsson. Editing by Sylvia Ingemarsson. In Swedish with English subtitles.RUNNING TIME: 142 minutes

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