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The Passion of Anna

"The Passion of Anna" is part of the Ingmar Bergman continuum: a self-contained chapter, still a chapter.

Svensk Filmindustri (SF)

Ingmar Bergman’s Shame had part of its origin I thought, in Bergman’s impulse to use some qualities of his “company” of actors in a certain situation, and his new film heightens this sense of collaboration and continuity. He is the only director now working whose new films grow organically out of his preceding ones: in continuity of locale, of associates, of almost diaristic closeness to the director’s inner experience. It becomes increasingly plain that Bergman wants this continuity to be seen as part of his esthetics.

He indicates this in several ways besides the ones mentioned above. There are recurrent names among his characters. Just one example from his latest film, The Passion of Anna: Vergérus, the architect, echoes Dr. Vergérus in The Magician. There are “quotations” from past work: a dream in this new filmlooks like an out-take from Shame. And there are subtler references: the camera fixes for several minutes on Liv Ullmann telling a story, as it did in Hour of Wolf and Shame; the final fade is to white, not black, and Persona, after the titles faded in from white.

And what is all this continuity in aid of? Since 1961, ever since he settled on Sven Nykvist as his cinematographer, Bergman has made eight feature films. With the exception of the disastrous comedy, All These Women, all of them are contemporary; most of them take place in “Bergman country,” the Swedish countryside or coast seen in haunted and haunting light; all of them have small casts and the effect of spiritual microscopy. With quiet seriousness, Bergman has addressed the largest questions that can still be asked: questions about faith, wholeness, love as an idea and love as practice, hope, the persistence of the beast, the teasing of truth—of the possibility of truth. As Bergman has reduced his means and distilled his thought, he has also moved towards this continuity of collaborators and terrain, as part of the process of distillation, so that artistic means in themselves would help the sense of concentration, and would carry implicit references. The very face of Max von Sydow reminds us of his pilgrimages, in other Bergman characters, through related crises.

The original title of this new film was A Passion. The change for America is a double distortion because Anna is not the protagonist and because it makes the word “passion” sexual, where it was presumably intended to have its religious meaning. The new film’s place as part of the Bergman continuum is clear throughout and is emphasized at the end. As the protagonist disappears from view, the narrator’s voice says: “This time he was called Andreas Winkelman.”

Andreas (played by von Sydow) has separated from his wife and now lives alone with his books and daily chores on that familiar Bergman island. We never learn what his past work was. Nearby is the country place of a successful Stockholm architect (Erland Josephson) and his wife Eva (Bibi Andersson). Their house guest is Anna (Liv Ullmann), a widow who was driving the car in which her husband and small son were killed. In the course of time, Andreas has a brief but affectionate affair with Eva, who loves her husband but simply lacks the wholeness for fidelity. (It is gently hinted that the husband knows of this affair; he certainly knows about a past one.) Then Anna, the widow, comes to live with Andreas and, through a year or so, they have some tenderness and some fights. Toward the end they have a violent quarrel in which he beats her.

I omit many, many fascinating details, which are not so much details of a story as of four lives. But one element essential to mention here is a killer on the island, a slaughterer of animals. We get a distant glimpse of this man very early, when he snares Andreas’ dachshund in a noose. Then eight sheep are killed on night, and the frightened islanders assault a lonely old man because of it, simply because he was once in a mental hospital and they must have a culprit. Despondent, the old man hangs himself. After the suspect’s suicide, another farmer’s bar is set on fire and his horse killed. Andreas goes to this fire just after his fierce fight with Anna. She comes to call for him and, as they drive home, they talk calmly about separating. Then he asks why she came to the fire to fetch him, and she replies, “I came to ask your forgiveness.” After he has beaten her! She drives off the road (a small parody of the accident she was in earlier), and the car halts. Andreas gets out, and she drives on.

Then comes the very last scene, a long shot of Andreas pacing back and forth; the camera slowly zooms in, the texture gets more and more grainy and white, and as the screen blanches out, we are just able to see Andreas fall to his knees. All during the slow zoom, we hear the ticking of a clock. This is a reference to the clock we heard much earlier when Andreas read a letter he had taken from Anna’s pocketbook: a letter from her (dead) husband which tells the unhappy truth about the marriage that she boasts of as happy.

This last scene sums up a good deal of the film’s concerns. Andreas is a withdrawn man with a strong streak of violence in him, who thought he had (literally) beaten his way out of an involvement that had come to chafe him, but who finds that he has been accepted in the truth of what he is—which frightens him. Yet has Anna accepted the truth? The ticking reminds us of the letter, of Anna’s power of self-deception, that she doesn’t lie in the ordinary sense but has a terrible capacity to convert unpleasantness to fit her need for affirmation. As the film finishes, Andreas’ passion does not finish; he sees that knowing about this propensity in Anna will not free him of her, any more than knowledge of his own weaknesses has freed him of his old self—despite his island retreat in a rite of self-purification. Purity and consistency are not possible; to live is to contradict yourself. To be aware of the contradictions and to bear them without resignation is the final passion.

But this film is not a fable leading to a moral. Its real purpose is to exist: to present some lives for a time, sounding chords by combinations of elements within and between each of them—and using the violence on the island as a sounding-board behind them. The fact that the film has pulse but no plot, motion forward but no neat conclusion, emphasizes that it is part of the Bergman continuum: a self-contained chapter, still a chapter.

At different points Bergman brings in each of his four main actors as himself. Each is seen “backstage” and is asked for comments on the role he (or she) is playing. At first I was dismayed by this device—now widely used—to include the making of the Him as part of the film, and I’m not yet convinced that it was entirely beneficial. But at least (unlike similar efforts by, say, Vilgot Sjoman) the actors’ comments are pertinent and, in themselves, become dramatic ingredients; besides, these backstage glimpses help the continuum idea by showing us even more aspects of the Bergman “company.”

Three of these four sterling actors, named above, are well-known to Bergman viewers. The fourth, Josephson, may be remembered as the baron in Hour of the Wolf. Josephson, who is director of the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm, also collaborated with Bergman on the script of All These Women. (They used a joint pesudonym.) His performance of the suave architect in L’Avventura—looks easy until we get our glimpse of Josephson himself and see the difference.

There are bothersome elements in the film. After their visit to the innocent old man suffering from the islanders’ violence, Andreas and Anna go home and see a Vietnam atrocity on television; and while they are watching, a bird flies into the window-pane and has to be killed. The sequence is pat. The narrator’s voice, which obtruded only once in Persona, obtrudes more often here. And there are some subliminal shots toward the end—like an insect flittering in mid-air after the beating scene—that add little.

But The Passion of Anna is lovely, partly because of its color. All These Women, Bergman’s first color film, was garish; in this one, his cameraman-collaborator, Sven Nykvist, has opened up the dissolved-pearl light of the previous “island” pictures to reveal the gold-green tones that lay behind it all the while. “Opening up” is the mode of this whole film. If it is not modeled into completely satisfying dramatic shape, neither is it amorphous. It happens. It feeds a hunger for experience—as baffling as our own but more beautifully rendered because it is in artists’ hands, as ours is not.