AROUND the time when he announced his retirement from cinema in the early 1980s, director Ingmar Bergman took an 8-mm camera and made what he called "a little film of Mother's face," using photographs from family albums as material.
According to Mr. Bergman's autobiography, "The Magic Lantern," this activity - and the hours of thought and recollection that accompanied it - provided few answers to the mysteries of his late mother's life and his own origins. He did come to appreciate more fully, however, the physical and mental challenges that faced his forebears in their time. His family, he poignantly concluded, "were people of good will but with a disastrous heritage of guilty conscience and too great demands made on them."
In the years before his retirement, Bergman might have taken a dramatic realization like this and made it the starting point for an ambitious movie - perhaps on the order of "Fanny and Alexander," the family-centered epic that closed off his film-directing career a decade ago.
Today he no longer works as a movie director. But he stays active in his native Sweden by directing stage and TV productions, and by writing an occasional script, such as the deeply personal screenplay for "The Best Intentions," a new film centering on a 10-year period in his parents' life.
Probably inspired by the modest 8-mm exercise that preceded it, the picture was directed by Danish filmmaker Bille August, who was expressly chosen by Bergman for the assignment. And a fortunate choice this has turned out to be: The movie won the grand prize and the best-actress award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and it is now arriving in American theaters with excellent prospects for success.
The story begins in 1909. Henrik Bergman is a poor theology student, dedicated to his religious calling but also inclined to amorous activities. These turn serious when he meets Anna Akerblom, a lively young woman whose background - a large, loving family with plenty of money - couldn't be more different from his own. Dodging the opposition of both their mothers, they fall in love, marry, and move to a rural town where Henrik becomes pastor of the local church.
Much of the drama takes place here, as Henrik and Anna seek a fulfilling life while coping with various difficulties. These range from the political strife of a labor dispute, which Henrik can't help getting involved with, to the friction generated by a homegrown atheist who (citing "family values" as a rationale) sets his views in opposition to Henrik's ministry. A particularly vivid subplot, with strong connections to social problems today, deals with the Bergmans' attempt to care for an abused child i n the absence of meaningful support from society at large.
Running through all the film's events is the religious conviction that stands at the center of Henrik's life. This is not a matter of simple creeds or shallow optimism - he feels God must be very mournful as He watches the slow progress of his earthly creatures - but rather a tough-minded awareness of both the material pitfalls and the spiritual possibilities present in human experience. His career reaches a turning point when he's asked to shepherd a more prominent church and to leave the mostly thankle ss community he now serves. His decision provides one of the story's most interesting twists.
I saw "The Best Intentions" at the Cannes filmfest in May, and my expectations for it weren't high. Bergman's last autobiographical film project, "Fanny and Alexander," has always struck me as more heartfelt and colorful than illuminating and intelligent. More important, Mr. August's previous film was "Pelle the Conqueror," an Oscar-winning hit that I find tedious and simplistic despite its handsome cinematography and sometimes passionate performances.
As a work of cinema, "The Best Intentions" marks no real improvement over the static image-making that "Pelle" plods through. The film adheres to a rigid, monotonous pattern: long passages of characters talking to each other, with the camera bouncing from one face to another, punctuated by picturesque "establishing shots" to show where the conversation is taking place. It's all very pretty, but its use of motion-picture possibilities is unimaginative.
What lifts "The Best Intentions" above its visual limitations, and makes it seem impressive, is the extraordinary depth and sincerity of Bergman's screenplay. Its wordiness is exasperating if you're waiting for this movie to move, but it's close to exhilarating once you realize that language - and its connection with deep layers of human thought - are its most important reason for being. Verbosity has been a problem in some Bergman films, but this one joins a few others in which words serve not as a supp lement to filmic expression but as a sophisticated driving force in their own right.
Also important to the film's resonance are the performances, directed by August with consistent skill. Samuel Froler and awardwinning Pernilla August are well matched as Henrik and Anna, bringing an appealing warmth to their roles without lapsing into showiness or sentimentality. Max von Sydow brings his usual authority to Anna's doting father, backed by a solid supporting cast. Jorgen Persson did the cinematography, which is often exquisite within the boundaries of August's constricted visual approach.
"The Best Intentions" was produced in two different versions: the theatrical version I've been discussing, which runs about three hours, and a six-hour edition designed as a TV miniseries. I hope the longer version hits the international airwaves soon, since the film's talking heads will look more appropriate on the TV screen, and a more expansive length might allow more breathing space for the screenplay's rich effusion of words, words, words.
For now, the theatrical version will have to do for spectators outside the range of Swedish television. Happily, it will do just fine.