“A diversion before death” is how a character who stands in for Ingmar Bergman describes Faithless, a new film written by Bergman and directed by one his erstwhile stars, Liv Ullmann. On the face of it, the description is a bit cryptic. It could refer to a work suffused with maudlin self-pity. It might be an excuse for enfeeblement and declining abilities. It might even glow with macabre gallows humor, like the scenes of the Knight playing chess with Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Provided the clarifying context of Faithless, though, the description comes across as something less colorful yet more subtly wondrous than any of these possibilities: It is simply matter-of-fact.

Now in his ninth decade, Bergman faces life’s final curtain by spinning out a screenplay that is meant, first of all, to entertain himself. That it happens to be more artistically vigorous and genuinely ambitious than 99.9 percent of films made today, by artists half or a third his age, seems entirely incidental. Clearly, impressing others is not Bergman’s motivation at this stage of things. Like Le Petite Theatre de Jean Renoir, Akira Kurosawa’s Madadayo and a handful of others, Faithless belongs to the company of late films by masters with absolutely nothing left to prove. It’s a category of filmmaking so rare and delicate that each work it contains perhaps deserves to be recommended not so much for the individual film’s merits (sometimes they are much slighter and spottier than they are in Faithless) but for what the category as a whole shows us about the extremes of cinema as an art of personal expression.

Bergman was born in Upsala, Sweden, in 1918. His first film as screenwriter was made in 1944. His first film as director came the next year. From that point on, he was extraordinarily prolific, turning out scores of movies that bore his inimitable stamp, in addition to constant work on the stage and other creative projects. Because he wrote as well as directed his films, Bergman was the embodiment of the French New Wave’s conception of the filmmaker as auteur–perhaps even more so than Federico Fellini, with whom he shared the world stage as the art’s twin colossi during the 1950s-60s apogee of the European art film. Since he officially retired from directing with 1982’s lush, autobiographical Fanny and Alexander, he has had a more active career than most fully employed filmmakers, writing scripts that have been directed by surrogates, most notably his son Daniel and Liv Ullmann.

Obviously, Bergman possesses the sort of creative energy that deserves to be called volcanic; mere mortals can only behold it and gape in wonderment. I happen to think that Private Confessions, the last of the films made from one of his screenplays to be released in the U.S. (it was also directed by Ullmann), is a more penetrating and haunting work than Faithless. But to make such distinctions, given the looming context, is to quibble. Seeing any new Bergman film in today’s cinematic context (and one must regard these as Bergman films no matter whose name appears as director) is like walking out of McDonald’s munching a Big Mac and running into Honor&233; de Balzac. What does it say of a talent so monumental that it overshadows not only the careers of other filmmakers but its own individual creations?

I would be curious to hear what a 20-year-old cinephile of today thinks of Faithless, yet I doubt that many people under the age of 40 will go to see it. When I was a 20-year-old cinephile and Bergman was at his mid-career peak, it was just the opposite. Younger audiences were the ones most keenly interested in older directors (Ford, Hitchcock, Welles, Renoir, Buñuel, et al.) and in the cinematic past. There was then, too, the sense of film art as something decidedly, even defiantly apart from film as commercial entertainment. That this distinction has faded from the perceptions of most filmgoers, especially the young, means that the medium’s surviving giants are today not so much heroes or avatars as they are anomalies, curiosities. Yet Faithless throws an additional paradox at cinephiles who would like to relax into warm, reverential admiration of an artist like Bergman: In showing how estimable art often comes from horrible people, it obliges us to face the possibility that definitions of aesthetic achievement that disregard human decency belong to a past that is being consigned to oblivion, for reasons that aren’t entirely bad.

Am I suggesting that Ingmar Bergman may be a horrible person? For the sake of argument, and at the admitted price of great oversimplification, let me answer that with a simple yes. Cumulatively, the accounts of his many marriages and countless affairs, the spectacular betrayals and execrable treatment of “loved” ones and children, the miserliness and boundless self-importance, suggest a monster of egotism who has never had the slightest interest in reigning in his appetites or ambitions for the benefit of others. Yet I mention this not to judge, or to attempt to weigh the artistic against the biographical (a foolish mission, that), but to note the subject matter that Bergman himself seems inclined to explore in this “diversion before death.”

Faithless opens with an aging artist named “Bergman” (Erland Josephson) gazing to sea, Prospero-like, from his island home, much like the one Ingmar Bergman famously inhabits on Faro. He goes into his study and calls to mind a new character, Marianne Volger (Lena Endre), who appears to him in full, physical form and helps him create the story to which she belongs. Or could it be that he is the one who belongs to the story? However you read it, this opening is a deft evocation of artistic creation and of the confusions that are at the heart of Faithless.

Though we see precious little of her professional life, we are given to understand that Marianne is a successful actress. She is married, apparently very happily, to a handsome, celebrated symphony conductor named Markus (Thomas Hanzon), and they have a beautiful young daughter named Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo). The couple’s best friend, David (Krister Henricksson), is a divorced, rumpled stage and film director who’s not as attractive as Markus, and who admits his tendency to screw up the lives of everyone around him. We can’t see why Marianne would risk her marriage for this half-charming, half-boorish schlub, but so she does. Shortly after their story begins, she and David go off to Paris and begin an affair. Marianne seems happy for about 20 seconds before she notices one of David’s least appealing traits: his insane jealousy. But by then it’s too late. Her marriage is headed for the rocks, and she is headed into a long, torturous relationship that will give her mostly heartache and pain.

Ullmann mounts this drama with an effective blend of delicacy and directness, getting sharp performances from her cast but especially from Endre, whose work recalls the passionate acuity of Ullmann herself, Bibi Andersson and other Bergman leading ladies. Yet the real star here is, of course, the script, which proves as curious as it is compelling. On one hand, it’s hard not to be awed by both the fecundity and the facility of Bergman’s imaginative vision. The film, which runs well over two hours, is like a dramatic chamber piece that boasts an almost perfect structure, and tremendous intelligence and finesse in every detail. On the other hand, the outcome of this admirable dexterity is a set of uncomfortable questions about how the film relates to contemporary reality and to Bergman himself.

It is lamentable, no doubt, that theater and cinema today do not focus more squarely and provocatively on people’s intimate lives. But supposing they did–would we see lives like those in Faithless? In many ways, I think not. The film’s temporal setting is left very vague–it perhaps takes place somewhere in the ’80s–and there may be a good reason for that. The people in the story, especially in the ways they define themselves by their actions, don’t seem to belong to this era. The main thing we note and puzzle over concerning Marianne, in particular, is her destruction of her own domestic happiness and complete carelessness of the damage she wreaks on the lives of others, especially her daughter.

Movies are amazing in how they can make us believe almost any kind of behavior, and Marianne’s can be credited under the general heading, “people’s endlessly ingenious ways of ruining their own lives.” Yet there’s a more specific sense in which what we’re seeing here represents–like a nonstop diet of martinis and T-bone steaks–patterns of behavior most closely associated with Bergman’s era, the ’50s and ’60s. In this world, people feel crushed by the codes of marriage and proper conduct imposed by religion and custom. The only way that some can see to assert their own reality is to lash out at such conventions, even at the cost of their own happiness. In this sense, Bergman’s work dramatizes not universal, timeless conflicts so much as a historical transition away from traditional pieties. Faithless, indeed, could be the title of his entire oeuvre, a study of people who translate a flight from old-style religious faith into a compulsion for personal infidelity.

For contemporary versions of Marianne and company, though, that flight happened a generation or more ago, which is one thing that leaves this film feeling a bit frozen in time. But there’s also the insulation provided by Bergman’s willingness to excuse rather than accuse himself. There’s a truly striking moment late in the film when Faithless admits that Bergman is David. Yet the revelation doesn’t convey the sting of tragic self-confrontation as much as it does a stab at self-exculpation, as if hinting that the brilliance of Bergman’s art somehow transmutes or justifies the atrocious acts it fictionalizes. This equivocation is finally what makes Faithless seem an odd, pacifying “diversion” rather than the gamble of an artist at the height of his perceptive powers. EndBlock