Anyone familiar with Scandinavian cinema knows by taking a look at this sprawling cast that this is a special experience. Many of these first-rate actors have worked with the masterful Ingmar Bergman on stage or in movies and probably didn’t need much persuading to come aboard this project as long as it was faithful to Bergman’s script. The film was carefully edited from a six-hour miniseries that aired on Swedish TV in late 1991 and it’s a surprisingly successful effort that doesn’t insult fans of the original and doesn’t feel rushed to newcomers.
In the early years of the 1900s, penniless theology student Henrik Bergman (Samuel Fröler) meets Anna (Pernilla August) who is part of a bourgeois family. Henrik has a fiancée, but quickly falls in love with Anna who feels the same way about him. Their relationship is troubled from the start, however. Henrik doesn’t tell Anna at first about his fiancée, and it turns out that he’s simply not good enough for her family, especially not Anna’s stern mother (Ghita Nørby). When Anna contracts tuberculosis and goes to Switzerland to find help, she lets Henrik know that she sees no future for them. Years pass and Henrik is ordained priest; a cloud of sadness hangs over him, but Anna is about to re-enter his life…
Inspired by Bergman’s style
It was when Ingmar Bergman was writing his memoirs that he started penetrating his parents’ relationship for real. They had always seemed a bit intimidating, perhaps even alien to him, but he listened to the story of how they first met and found this love affair across social boundaries fascinating. The script that he eventually came to write depicts the years from when the poor priest and the bourgeois “princess” first met in 1909 until 1918 when Anna became pregnant with Ingmar. Director Bille August has clearly been inspired by Bergman’s style; the camera is mostly static, allowing the cast to dominate fully, complemented with cinematographer Jörgen Persson’s stark and beautiful visuals of both city and country life. Stefan Nilsson’s music score supports the central romance in heartbreakingly melancholic ways; it fits hand in glove with the sadness and hope of it. Because this is a love affair that resonates. There is something mysterious about love the way it is manifested by Anna and Henrik. We see them meet and fall head over heels in love. They are miserable without each other. When they finally get to have each other, even before they marry and have children, they show a different side of themselves – an ugly, quarrelsome tendency that will continue to harm and threaten their relationship over the years. Their nasty arguments dominate huge parts of the film… and yet in the end it is clear, if not to others then at least to them, that this is real love and it is for life. If you do not recognize how true and weird this is, you are either ridiculously happy or blissfully ignorant. The themes are true to other Bergman films. The title alludes to several efforts made by characters throughout the film that may be well-intentioned but end in unfortunate ways; they are more illustrations of early twentieth century social mores and their consequences than directly relatable to the Bergman marriage. The cast is magnificent, the old pros as well as Fröler and August in their breakthrough roles.
The film never got a chance to win a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar; Sweden submitted it as a candidate, but it was rejected because the miniseries had aired on TV first. Still, The Best Intentions got revenge by triumphing at the Cannes film festival. The old Bergman magic remained intact.
The Best Intentions 1992-Sweden-Germany-Britain-Italy-France-Denmark-Norway-Iceland-Finland. 181 min. Color. Produced by Ingrid Dahlberg. Directed by Bille August. Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman. Cinematography: Jörgen Persson. Music: Stefan Nilsson. Cast: Samuel Fröler (Henrik Bergman), Pernilla August (Anna Bergman), Max von Sydow (Johan Åkerblom), Ghita Nørby, Lennart Hjulström, Mona Malm… Lena Endre, Keve Hjelm, Björn Kjellman, Börje Ahlstedt, Hans Alfredson, Lena T. Hansson, Anita Björk, Ernst Günther, Marie Göranzon, Björn Granath, Gunilla Nyroos, Michael Segerström, Inga Landgré, Emy Storm, Marie Richardson, Tomas Bolme, Roland Hedlund, Björn Gustafson, Gösta Prüzelius, Bertil Norström, Margaretha Krook, Sif Ruud, Sara Sommerfeld, Gustaf Hammarsten, Ernst-Hugo Järegård, Sten Ljunggren, Tord Peterson.
Trivia: Original title: Den goda viljan. Sunday’s Children (1992) portrayed Ingmar Bergman’s childhood; Private Confessions (1997) reunited Fröler and August as his parents.
Cannes: Palme d’Or, Best Actress (August).
Last word: “One day, I got a call from a man, and he said ‘This is Ingmar Bergman and I’ve written a piece about my parents and I’ve decided at this point in my life I don’t want to direct anymore and I would like you to do it if you are interested.’ Of course, I was extremely honored and thrilled. At the same time, when I started to think about it, I started to get scared because at that time,I was pretty established and therefore, I couldn’t really be his assistant or ‘do a Bergman film.’ The only way I could do it was to work as I had always done. Anyway, I went to see him and the first thing he said to me was, ‘I’ve done more than 50 films myself and I know how important it is for a director to keep his integrity. I am the screenwriter on this one, you are the director, and YOU make the decisions.’ So that answered all my questions and I was really very relieved. He only had one demand. He said, ‘Pernilla – I wrote it for her and I want her to play my mother.’ And that was fine with me because she is a wonderful actress.” (Bille August, Zakka)