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‘The Best Intentions’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 14, 1992

Ingmar Bergman may have retired as a film director but, as his script for "The Best Intentions" shows, his creativity remains inviolate. A fictional rendering of the early life of Bergman's parents, this Cannes festival winner eloquently traces the resentment under their troubled marriage. Realized beautifully by director Bille August, "Intentions" is a moving, profound requiem to all human relationships.

Impressed by August's 1989 "Pelle the Conqueror" (which also took the Cannes prize), Bergman entrusted his script to the Danish director. It has clearly paid off. With a sterling cast (including Max von Sydow) behind him, August more than answers the epic call. There's a psychological depth, a flow of human emotions and a delving into the big themes -- love, family, God, hypocrisy -- that are practically extinct in today's movies.

Set in Sweden between 1909 and 1918, this three-hour movie traces the debilitating romantic obstacles before theology student Samuel Froler and the bourgeois Pernilla August (the director's wife). Problems present themselves immediately. August's affluent parents, von Sydow and Ghita Norby, are strongly opposed to the lower-class suitor. Norby, a woman of alarming resolve, is particularly adamant. But their daughter is equally headstrong and determined. After a seismic mother-daughter battle, August prevails, but the worst is yet to come.

The couple's life remains emotionally tumultuous, as two distinct individuals try futilely to change one another. When Froler is offered a post in the frozen north, just before the marriage, he accepts with puritanical zeal. August, reared for finer things, does not share his love of the barren but she begrudgingly adapts to the ascetic existence.

Froler presides over a small, poorly heated church in a rural community, teaching confirmation classes while his ertswhile socialite wife must content herself with nursing the sick and conducting sewing evenings. A boy is born. They also take in a parentless, sullen child for a while. Froler's sanctimoniousness clashes with a tyrannical father over religious education. They weather these and other trying episodes. But August reaches breaking point after Froler refuses an appealing position in Uppsala.

"Intentions" is a captivating saga, sometimes comic, often anguished and always absorbing. It's made doubly unforgettable by its performers, particularly August (who won the actress award at Cannes), Norby and von Sydow. When von Sydow attempts to dissuade Froler from marrying his daughter, the old man's fear of confrontation becomes touchingly comic. He talks about trains and God -- anything but the central issue. Finally, he gives up and tells Froler, "I suddenly feel very tired."

When sterner Norby confronts house guest Froler, the emotional temperature rises to a throat-catching peak as she tears through the polite, Nordic surface and asks him to leave her daughter. If Norby is so opposed to him, Froler asks, why did she invite him to her country house?

"I wanted," she replies coolly, "to see my daughter's love at close quarters."

There are even more affecting confrontations to come -- including one between Froler and August in that remote church -- which map out their existential divide all too clearly. That division culminates in a final round back in the south, in which Froler faces August -- now pregnant with their second child. It's eerie and exhilarating to realize the gestating infant is none other than Ingmar Bergman and that, while these still-young parents bicker their life away, the fate of their future biographer literally hangs in the balance.

THE BEST INTENTIONS (Unrated) -- In Swedish with subtitles.

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