Ghost Story

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"You said we'd play and fantasize," says the disembodied voice at the outset of Liv Ullmann's best and very Bergman-like film, Faithless. "Play" is an odd word choice for the psychodrama that follows, but the more the voice speaks, the more its words give it shape and substance, much like the film itself.

Faithless unfolds much as it opens, with an old man sitting alone in his study and communing with the ghosts of his past. Most of the film is a series of extended flashbacks related by the head ghost, Marianne (Lena Endre), a woman with whom the old man, a former film director, once had an affair. Based on a screenplay written by Ullmann's own mentor, the great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, Faithless is a study of the joy and, primarily, the great pain caused by this affair — an affair that breaks up the woman's marriage and causes terrible suffering to everyone involved. Since the script is also clearly based on the long, stormy relationship between Ullmann and Bergman, Faithless also must be seen not just as another attempt by Bergman (and Ullmann) to turn pain into art, but as a very real sort of penance for past sins.

Stately, uncompromising, intensely confessional, and filled with long, intimate monologues delivered in unblinking close-up, Faithless feels very much like a latter-day Bergman film, right down to the Persona nod where Marianne's image leans into her reflection until the two faces merge. The phrase "massive silence" is used at least once in the film, and Faithless is full of great, daunting, impeccable slabs of quiet that remind the characters of the void all around them (and remind us of all those classic films from Bergman's existential period). Even when the characters are jabbering away, it's as if they're merely doing so for the companionship of their own voices, as if they're flinging words into the void in some sort of foolish attempt to fill up the nothingness with sound, ideas and questions.

There's not much that could be considered even remotely upbeat about Faithless, but the film has a passion and clarity of vision that is thoroughly engaging. The performances are uniformly excellent, particularly the one given by Endre (who manages to communicate something very close to the essence conveyed by Ullmann when she acted in many of Bergman's films). Faithless is one of the more melancholy journeys you'll ever take, but the film's uniquely poetic sensibility and profound empathy with its complex characters encourage us to go the distance.

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