Ingmar Bergman stopped making movies 17 years ago, but then again, he didn’t. His epic autobiographical/dynastic script project, which has been landing in formidable but underappreciated meteor-like hunks since 1989’s The Best Intentions, is enough to keep Bergmania alive and kicking in the hearts of art-film mourners everywhere. Certainly, each shout from Ingmar’s camp comes as something of an anachronistic shock, a flashback to a time when sophisticated, imported “specialty films” could be hair-clenching, logorrheic psycho-circuses precariously erected upon elliptical symbolism and acres of heartbreaking talk. Which is to say that, in many ways, Bergman dates, and the recent films based on his scripts at first seem to fall back on the semimystical, jabber-mouthed monologues that made him a hit not so long ago. When Faithless—his new screenplay, directed by a practical-minded Liv Ullmann—first plants us in a sparely decorated room, solely filled with the conversation between an aging scriptwriter named Bergman (Erland Josephson) and his imagined thirtysomething heroine (Lena Endre), you feel stuck in an old man’s quaintly dramatized neuroses. But Bergman is nothing if not an artist finely focused on secret narrative weaponry and snowballing decimation, and before you know it, his structural strategy has made it a Kevlar kind of day.
What Bergman’s fond of (more than he perhaps wants to admit) is storytelling. Like scores of earlier films, from Wild Strawberries to Persona to Ullmann’s Private Confessions, Faithless is framed like a therapy session. All Josephson’s elderly artiste does is listen as Endre recounts—or helps the writer imagine—a saga of infidelity, between conductor’s wife and mother Marianne (Endre) and leathery, narcissistic filmmaker David (Krister Henriksson). What begins as a preposterous proposition soon sidles into a flirtation that takes the couple on a preplanned week-in-Paris affair; caught up in the illicit élan of it all, the couple never thinks very much about Marianne’s husband, Markus (Thomas Hanzon), or her young daughter (Michelle Gylemo). Naturally, it’s when Markus finds out—or rather, lets on that he knows—that the gloves come off and the fur flies in earnest. “Is this how we pay?” Marianne murmurs at one point, just as the movie subtly refocuses upon the actual cost of whimsical family collapse—the needless, hellacious dynamiting of a child’s world.
Distracted by the pseudosophisticated framework and the story’s paradigmatic ordinariness, you don’t anticipate how the situation between the three adults turns rancid. Bergman’s brutalizing emotionalism accumulates on-screen with Marianne (whose relationship with David seems to be largely a self-created paradise, since David himself is a violent, neurotic oaf), while what’s going on with the abandoned Markus off-screen sheds the most blood. In fact, much of what Faithless contains happens off-screen, told and retold as stories within stories, and so the actors typically work like oxen. At least, Endre does: A lovely, aging vixen with monumentally expressive eyes, she virtually carries the film herself. If it doesn’t happen on her face, it doesn’t happen.
Still, Faithless becomes contingent on that little girl, on the moment when she closes up and walks out of the room, and in that Bergman has sampled the new great theme of modern culture: parental anxiety. The plight of children as they suffer the whims of the adult world has become one of movies’ primary issues. Some filmmakers, like Atom Egoyan, find it difficult to focus on much else; Sean Penn shares the burden, and The Pledge, like The Crossing Guard before it, is resolutely fixed on children abused, scarred, and butchered. For reasons the film presumes we can guess at, the dismembered corpse of an eight-year-old girl turns retired detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) in his tracks, leading him on a largely interior journey to find the killer as he’d promised the grieving mother. “Why shouldn’t I go and see her?” demands the father. “Because we hardly dared to look ourselves,” Jerry answers. Penn lets it go at that: Transposed to semirural Nevada, Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s story retains its chilly, unspoken perverseness—you only realize gradually how far Jerry will go to meet his obligation, even if it transforms his entire life into a waiting-game spike pit for the lurker.
It’s a movie of wintery, wind-beaten surfaces, and though Penn is a sloppy filmmaker (he cuts to birds too often, and tries too hard to visualize a character’s confusion or drunkenness) and steals from everyone, he has palpable respect for the beats and textures of ordinary people. (It’s Nicholson’s least mannered performance in a decade and a half, and Benicio Del Toro’s turn as a retarded American Indian arrested for the murder nearly hijacks the movie.) Though at times it threatens to meander off, Penn’s movie fulfills its destiny as an alienated fable of justice and luck, personified by Jack in the twilight of his iconicity, babbling to himself at the crossroads of nowhere.