by Walter Chaw
starring Lena Endre, Erland Josephson, Krister Henriksson, Thomas Hanzon
screenplay by Ingmar Bergman
directed by Liv Ullman
It is perhaps most instructive to look back at the beginning of a life when contemplating the end of one. Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman spent his nineteenth year in The Skerries (a Stockholm archipelago), a tumultuous period during which he lost the girl he loved, lost his faith in religion, and finally lost a close male friend to death. That year, when married with the all-pervasive influence of playwright Strindberg and a tireless love of the theatre, provides the root concerns shooting through Bergman's filmography: the idea that marriage is a constant negotiation of losses (abortions and suicides included in that mix) and that should God exist, He is grown apathetic.
Now Faithless, directed by one of Bergman's favourite actresses (Liv Ullmann) from one of his screenplays, encompasses implications pointing to the collapse of both marriage and religion in just its title. That it is set in a deserted beach house where the aging director (played by Erland Josephson) is a Pirandello-esque player in his own drama places it squarely among Bergman's darker pieces (such as Sommarlek, The Naked Night, and, of course, Ullmann's own Scenes from a Marriage and Autumn Sonata). The film is a lacerating portrait of the inexorable disintegration of friendship, love, and marriage.
Lena Endre plays both Marianne and the actress portraying her, a woman married to symphony conductor Markus (Thomas Hanzon) and a mother to young Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo). For no good reason save a nod to the "mysterious," Marianne has an affair with Markus's best friend, brooding theatre director David (Krister Henriksson). David is apparently Bergman's alter ego (the director revealed that this film is based on an episode in his life that was too painful for him to undertake on his own; additionally, Bergman has always referred to the theatre as his wife and film as his mistress), and as is Bergman's tendency, the alter ego is treated with the greatest degree of stark scrutiny. David is consumed by violent jealousy, unpredictable mood swings, and a professional's penchant for self-destruction. He is the catalyst for Faithless's tragedy.
As the actress, Endre visits Bergman in a writer's cottage out of time. Placing the author outside of his work within the work immediately begs consideration of the tricky morality behind created beings made to suffer for the sake of art. That's an old deconstructionist question suggested before by sources as varied as Strindberg (of course), Stephen King of all people (with Bag of Bones), and Bergman himself (though usually in the form of a play-within-a-play or, most startlingly, he and cinematographer Sven Nykvist reflected in a mirror in Persona).
The problem with Faithless certainly isn't with the remarkable transparency of its ensemble. Endre, who bears a striking resemblance to Meryl Streep, has a way about her that is raw and immediate. (A conversation between Marianne and her estranged husband's lawyer is as shattering and quiet a glimpse of guilt at war with outrage that I've seen.) Young Gylemo is also fantastic: heartbreakingly delicate, the stresses Faithless places on her character are brutal and unsentimental, and she carries the weight of that tension with a limpid dignity that could be an accident of her age--but I don't think so.
No, the drawback to Faithless is that it is too clearly an auteur product, a Bergman film (Ullmann's hand all but invisible) that announces itself as such early and often enough that there isn't so much a joy in the unfolding as a dread of the inevitable. Faithless so effectively questions the morality of creating beings made to suffer that it expands itself into a reflexive discussion of the morality of created beings made to cause an audience to suffer in sympathy. I am of two minds regarding this film, in other words, torn between poles of lauding its honesty and questioning the wisdom of its abandon. That it is thought-provoking is no question; that it offers few epiphanies, likewise without debate. Faithless is an exquisite treatise on nihilism penned by one of cinema's great seekers, but we've visited this particular abyss with him before and we've even taken the same vehicle to get us there. I can't say that the ride's not worth the taking again--there are just too many things to recommend Faithless--yet I also can't say that I was edified by the picture. That reluctant realization, for a late Bergman, is disappointing.
starring Mariam Parris, David Ackert, Shaun Toub, Shohreh Aghdashloo
written and directed by Ramin Serry
Ramin Serry's Maryam is set in 1979 on the eve of the Iran Hostage crisis, the inception of which we witness through a series of news clips interspersed with the film's central drama. Mary (a fantastic Mariam Parris) is an all-American teen living in New Jersey in a predominantly white suburb who happens to be Iranian. The crisis and its attendant rise in anti-Iranian sentiment collides with Mary's attempts to live the American puberty, further complicated by a visit from her cousin Ali (David Ackert), an Iranian native son who doesn't approve of "the great Satan" and its relative permissiveness.
I was well into junior high school before I realized I was Chinese. Living in one of the whitest areas in one of the whitest states (Colorado) in the union, I had engaged from an early age in a process of disassociation from my immigrant parents in the hope that I would become indistinguishable from my invariably Caucasian friends. I had a conversation one day, however, with a Native American boy who, like me, shared the distinction of being perhaps the only representative in that institution of our respective races. We ended with a handshake and his, "Thanks for giving me a non-white to talk to." The shock was a cold one: the rift with my parents and my culture is still (and forever) in the process of healing and I fear that I will always be coming to terms with that essential "divorce" of my Chinese reality and my Caucasian American me.
What Maryam captures is that same perverse element of the Kafkaesque where identity, overnight, is robbed and replaced with a persecuted "other." School becomes a crucible for Mary; a brick is thrown into her home, her boyfriend caves to the callow attentions of Mary's Aryan nemesis, and cruel racial epithets decorate her precious car. The precariousness of civility is illustrated early, first when an embarrassed Mary mocks her father's (Shaun Taub) accent, then at a party where well-meaning neighbours think an "Ali Baba" joke is the height of wit (early, minorities learn to distinguish boorishness from bigotry).
When the dam breaks and the monsters come out on Serry's emblematic Maple Street, the dynamite interpersonal dynamics (well-written and poignant) take second place to a badly misplaced subplot about Ali's plot to kill the Shah and subsequent fugitive status. It's a shame that Serry turns away from Mary and her parents (the mother is played with an Anne Bancroft-ian warmth by Shohreh Aghdashloo), as it is in the study of a family under siege that Maryam is most brilliant. Still, Maryam is a special film that, for the most part, avoids the histrionics and clichéd story arcs endemic to films about race and coming of age (see: An American Rhapsody), hitting more grace notes than a film of twice its distribution. Serry is a talent to watch.