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"FAITHLESS": THE ART OF COMFORT
 
The film "Faithless" is deservedly getting singled out as a throw-back to the time, when art films were still being played at the art movie houses. Directed by Liv Ullmann and scripted by Ingmar Bergman, it is based on a personal, painful episode in Bergman's life, when as a younger man he had an affair with his friend's wife. Since Bergman did not direct the film himself, it was, perhaps, inevitable that the film ended up feeling more like a good depiction of someone else's material, rather than a product of inner urgency on the part of the director. That said, however, Bergman could not have asked for a more sensitive, refined and sympathetic director than Liv Ullmann. And the film has so many commendable points:
And so it is Bergman's guilty conscience that is the central character of the film. It gives him no peace in his old age. At one point he says, he wished there was some punishment that he could undergo and through which he could then redeem his guilt. That indeed  would be possible, if it were a question of just one specific wrong deed (one infidelity, as opposed to finding-new-partners-while-being-unfaithful-to-the-old-ones as a way of life). But here, as in most cases, the problem lies much deeper, since it is not a question of just one committed  wrong, but of a long self-perpetuated chain of wrongs stemming from a particular way of life, a particular way of thinking. It is an endless cycle of infidelities, of faithlessness, in a desperate attempt to fill life with some meaning and excitement. This alone should suffice to show us how hopelessly entangled we have become in our quest for the true meaning in life. Most of us no longer even sense that this way of living is actually demeaning and degrading to all concerned. Does the thought never occur to us that it is just a waste of one's life on earth?.. Bergman's character more than once confesses to the feeling of "shame" - and indeed this is the voice of his spirit, whose dignity is besmirched not by the sexual activity as such, but by the obsessive preoccupation with it. Cultivation of animalistic inclinations has led to the elevation of sex to a positon of UNNATURAL importance. This does not mean abstinence as a solution, but a conscious assertion by the spirit for a natural dominance over all matter, to which the body also belongs. How the spirit is capable of asserting itself can only be understood within the context of the Natural Laws of Creation. The knowledge of these Laws has been lost to us (science has managed to uncover but a fraction of their actual purpose and magnitude). Yet without this knowledge we cannot restore our spiritual health and will therefore continue to look at everything through our distorted vision, not comprehending the Great Network of Justice which governs Creation - and ultimately ending up laying the blame for all the misery in the world at the doorstep of the Creator (a position which requires the least effort and self-examination). To spare us the fate of such hopeless cynicism the Knowledge of the Laws of Creation has once more (and for the last time) been offered to mankind through the book "IN THE LIGHT OF TRUTH: THE GRAIL MESSAGE" by Abd-ru-shin (original in German). 
 
At one point in the film, the old Bergman says that he is now seeking answers to questions he never asked before. It would have been nice to hear some of those questions. As it is, however, they are never voiced and never addressed. And this brings us to the major problem with this film: despite being artistic, it remains superficial. Of course, next to what is being produced today it might seem "deep", but next to the work of first-rate Bergman, it falls far short. And this is not necessarily because Liv Ullmann, and not Bergman himself, shot the film. It must be stated that even Bergman has not produced the "first-rate Bergman" (with the exception of the masterful "Fanny and Alexander") for quite some time. The first-rate art is always inexorably linked with the quest for the deeper meaning to human existence, which in turn is always linked to the individual's search for the Creator. In this search, issues of human relationships take a back seat, simply because they can never be comprehended outside of the main issue of the existence or the non-existence of the Creator, which must be dealt with first. The central problem with this film (which, by the way, it shares with almost all of contemporary art) is that it goes about its business as if the question of the existence of the Creator were already settled (or did not exist at all!) The characters experience joy, sorrow and tragedy without once lifting their heads out of their own mess to ask a simple question: "What's this life all about?".. What's it all about? What does it matter whether one is faithful or unfaithful? Some feel the pangs of conscience, while others go on plucking as many cherries as possible - but is there a higher court, so to speak, a Higher Power, to Which all must eventually answer? Everything hinges on this question! Without an answer to it, life becomes impossible! And if one were to spend one's whole life looking (really looking!) for a genuinely-experienced answer to it, it would be a life well-spent.
 
And Bergman used to concern himself with just this question. That was the time, when he created his greatest films, which still stand as some of the greatest cinema ever made: "Winter Light", "Silence", "Through the Glass Darkly", "Virgin Spring", "Shame", "The Seventh Seal", "Persona". Like Dostoevsky before him, Bergman arranged his priorities correctly: first a human being must grapple with the issue of the Creator, and only afterwards can other issues (including human relationships) be put into the right perspective. Dostoevsky meant just that, when he stated that morality made no sense unless there was a God. Bergman's greatest films are testimonies of his spirit's agonizing struggle to sense something of the presence of the Creator - a struggle to the death or... to new life!.. Let us just recall for a moment the main character (the priest) in "Winter Light" and compare him to the character of Bergman (young and old) in "Faithless". The priest of "Winter Light" also represents Bergman (as well as Bergman's father), but at a different stage of his life. Here he is so focused on the number-one issue of human existence that nothing can distract or console him. Not even human love. He is irritated and annoyed by his lover's attempts to console him with her attention. His behavior towards her even seems cruel at times, but in this way the point is driven home: human love is no consolation for a human being, who has lost his connection with the Creator. And who, in all objectivity and honesty, has not lost his connection with the Creator?! Many now will step forward and proudly assert that they have not, while looking down upon the other "poor things" that have. But this attitude, upon close examination, turns out to be nothing but a comfortable state of self-delusion. Small wonder that the German philosopher Schopenhauer made a simple, yet astute observation that in actuality there is no difference between a religious person and an atheist, since both cases produce the same inner state - the state of COMFORT. What devastating truth is contained in this statement! Both parties no longer concern themselves with the issue of the Creator (since it's been settled) and both sink into a big, comfortable spiritual armchair. Stupefying slumber!
 
This is what has been in evidence in Bergman's work ever since he declared (after "Winter Light") that his relationship with God had been settled. Since then he has turned to "relationship films", producing works like "Scenes from a Marriage" and "Autumn Sonata" (not to mention those lame Bergman-family histories he has scripted since his retirement.) "Faithless" is unfortunately a continuation in that vein. Viewed from a higher perspective (and from the perspective of Bergman's own earlier work), all of these films bear the mark of spiritual sleep, despite the histrionics that are usually displayed in them. That is not to say that these films have no value - they most certainly do, especially for the artist who in this way tries to make amends for his past, and also for all those, who can to some degree identify with the artist's experience. But they remain on the level of second-rate art, as do all works that DO NOT focus on man's struggle to rediscover afresh his relationship with his Creator. A powerful illustration of this is the way, in which suicide is treated in "Faithless" in contrast to how it was handled in "Winter Light". In "Winter Light" the man, who is contemplating suicide, comes to the priest for help. The priest goes through all the usual reasons for such a thing: marital problems, finances etc. - and gets an emphatic "no" to each one. Then he recognizes that he and this man are tormented by the same question: is there really a Godhead, Who is not a product of human imagination? And if there isn't, what then is the point of living? Shockingly, the depressed priest shares with this man his own conclusion that, in his experience, there is no Creator. The man then goes out and kills himself. This is how Bergman used to view the magnitude of the human problem: a human being desperately seeking his Creator, not wanting to live without Him. But in later films Bergman's scope of the human problem has narrowed down and shrunk to: a human being looking for other human beings, looking for human understanding. One involuntarily recalls the ending of the "Virgin Spring" - a father of the raped and murdered girl crying out: "God, I do not understand you!" What is all of human understanding and sympathy next to that cry?! 
 
Another great Bergman film, which comes to mind and which is particularly associated with Liv Ullmann, is "Persona". There her character's anguish over the superficial way of life, in which  ALL of us are engaged (whether we admit it or not), is illustrated by an ingenious stroke: she refuses to speak. No one in the history of film has come up with a more brilliant (and truthful) device to express this shattering realization on the part of one human being that EVERYTHING we say, do and think is somehow fundamentally FALSE and SHALLOW - that one must become completely silent within before anything truly significant has a chance to surface. She derives no consolation from her relationships - not even with her child! Here Bergman, who is desperately seeking a higher meaning for a human life, hits upon the right thing: a child cannot fill one's life with meaning completely. Bergman intuits that a human being is called to a much higher task than just parenting in this Creation! A much higher task than marriage or family or career or exciting sex life! When a human spirit awakens for a moment (as Bergman did in his earlier films and as Liv Ullmann appears to have done in her "Persona" role) does it always have to be followed by their sinking back again into spiritual slumber? Is the intensity just too much?
 
At the end of "Faithless", Ullmann shows the 80+ Bergman leaving the confines of his study and walking off into the hazy darkness of a shoreline - his life coming to a close. By way of contrast, the end of the life of Lev Tolstoy, who fought valiantly against the comfort of old age, stands as a shining portrait of a true seeker! Leaving his family and home (when he was over 80!), summoning the last bit of strength to go running into the night (in order to find the way to his Creator!) and collapsing and dying at the railroad station. A great moment in Russian history that makes the Russian Revolution look like child's play! The movement of the spirit in its final act on earth is an inspiration to all! When the Russian philosopher Lev Shestov heard about this, he said: "I too want to go like that." Add to this Tolstoy's final answer to the plea for him to return to the church (from which he was ex-communicated) on his deathbed, in which case he would be granted absolution, and you have an amazing showcase for Tolstoy's will. Tolstoy's answer was a re-affirmation of his previous position that the church has NO authority to grant absolution. A shockingly truthful statement in complete accord with the Laws of God! 
 
Tolstoy saw through religion (as did Bergman), but he never made the mistake of equating the Creator with this faulty human institution. He never gave up on his quest for Him, Who gave us life (which WE have turned into a mockery). Tolstoy's last words were : "To seek, always to seek..." Taking these words over into the Beyond with him, he quickly experienced that, which he sought and longed for all his life - the reality of the Creator's existence. He made this possible for himself, because (having rejected the distortions of religion) he did not slip into the comfort of atheism and did not become faithless to his Creator.
 

Copyright 2001 by Gregory and Maria Pearse