Never underestimate the power of Swedish angst and Lutheran guilt. It seems that somewhere around 1949, the then-fledgling filmmaker Ingmar Bergman had an affair. Some 50 years later, he’s still trying to sort it out. That’s where Faithless comes in. Though the film is signed by frequent Bergman actress (and his former lover) Liv Ullmann, there’s very little doubt whose film this really is. Ullmann’s directorial style here is thoroughly grounded in her mentor’s work — brooding compositions, long (very, very long) close-ups of actors talking, and the occasional (usually quite stunning) outbursts of theatrical flourishes. The results are far from flawless, but never far from fascinating, and with a cumulative power just this side of shattering. The film’s biggest drawback is its 154-minute running time, which is about 30 minutes more than Faithless can fully support. However, the excessive length is also part of what gives this fairly simple film its weightiness. Faithless presents a portrait of the aging Bergman (Erland Josephson, whose performance is grounded in a passiveness that allows the viewer to read his or her own emotions into the actor’s face) as he “imagines” a seemingly fictional character, Marianne (Lena Andre), telling him the story of her affair with a writer-director (Krister Henriksson) and its impact on not only their lives, but her symphony-conductor husband (Thomas Hanzon) and their child (Michelle Gylemo). At first, this seems a facile device that merely allows for the typical Bergmanesque psychological gabfest, but it soon becomes apparent that much more is at work here. Not only does the approach allow Bergman to expound — however obliquely — on his own sense of guilt, but it affords an insight into the creative process. The idea that the writer conjures a character and then lets the character take over and tell her story, rather than have the writer deliberately craft it, is a cogent commentary on the process of writing that affords the film an extra layer. Bergman being Bergman, he isn’t about to give too much away in the process — preferring to let the viewer reach his own conclusions in many areas. The Bergman character speaks of the urgency of old age, of how time is compressed for him, of the sensation of being pulled into a vortex and seeking answers to questions he didn’t even know existed, but that’s as far as Bergman the writer is going to let on about the autobiographical nature of the film. But which — if any — of these characters in the story she is telling is meant to be Bergman? There are hints. Much as Bergman feels himself being pulled into a vortex, Marianne finds herself being pulled into the affair that changes, damages and even destroys several lives. Is she the Bergman character? The film chooses not to answer. What it does instead is chart Marianne’s faithlessness from mild flirtation to obsessiveness with unflinching detail and uncompromising realism. The characters are stripped bare (sometimes literally) and the camera never looks away, or allows the viewer to look away. And this, in essence, is Bergman’s point. It doesn’t ultimately matter if this is Bergman’s own story or merely an imagined scenario of infidelity — it is anyone’s and everyone’s infidelity, meant to ring true to anyone who has ever betrayed or been betrayed. It is almost impossible to not identify with each of the film’s main characters at some point in the narrative. The question becomes not just the effect of faithlessness on one person, but on all the persons this faithlessness touches. The results — while flawed by length and occasional lapses into the simplistic — are powerful and uncomfortable. It isn’t a film you’re apt to want to see too often — or perhaps even more than once — but it is not a film that should be dismissed or overlooked.
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