Monday, September 25, 2006

By Vincent Canby, The New York Times, May 29, 1970

Andreas Winkelman (Max von Sydow) is repairing the roof of the cottage in which he lives as a literate hermit. At one point, he stares off at the sun that hangs low and dim — with its edges made ragged by a telephoto lens — in the Scandinavian sky. Suddenly the sun disappears into the gray-blue haze, but it's as if Andreas had willed it invisible, much as he has tried to will himself invisible without taking the ultimate step.
With this lovely image, Ingmar Bergman begins The Passion of Anna, which opened yesterday at the Festival Theater and is the concluding film in the "island" trilogy that includes Hour of the Wolf and Shame. As in Hour of the Wolf, the von Sydow/Bergman character is again pursued by demons, but they are real this time — demons of pride, loneliness, and defeat. As in Shame, he is again framed against a world of war and violence, although the war is miniaturized and distanced (as a fleeting television image from Vietnam) and the violence is the work of a madman who roams the island ritualistically hanging a dog, cutting the throats of sheep, and setting horses on fire.
In The Passion of Anna, Andreas is as much victim as culprit. Living in solitude on the island, after having been abandoned at some earlier time by his wife, Andreas is drawn into a friendship with Elis (Erland Josephson), a successful architect; Eva (Bibi Andersson), his wife, and Anna (Liv Ullmann), their best friend, who is recovering from an automobile accident in which she, the driver, survived her husband and child.
Andreas first has an affair of convenience with Eva, a sad, pretty woman who loves her husband but feels unneeded by him. Later, he shares his cottage with Anna, a voluptuous woman who prattles on about the necessity of striving for spiritual perfection and about the "wholeness" of her lost marriage, although Andreas is perfectly aware of the fact that the marriage was a disaster, that her husband had tried, unsuccessfully, to leave her. Andreas has come upon a letter in Anna's purse in which her husband had warned that her unreasonable demands would lead first to "mental and psychical violence," and then to physical violence. The letter was signed "Andreas," which was also the name of Anna's husband.
Quite relentlessly, Anna's passion leads to the defeat of the second Andreas and, at the end, there is every indication that she will continue to go through life like some overzealous Christian missionary, preaching salvation and leaving behind her a trail of lies, compromises, confusion, and violence.
The Passion of Anna is one of Bergman's most beautiful films (it is his second in color), all tawny, wintry grays and browns, deep blacks, and dark greens, highlighted occasionally by splashes of red, sometimes blood. It is also, on the surface, one of his most lucid, if a film that tries to dramatize spiritual exhaustion can be ever said to be really lucid. However, like all of Bergman's recent films, it does seem designed more for the indefatigable Bergman cryptologists (of which I am not one) than for interested, but uncommitted filmgoers.
For example, I am curious about, but am unable to speculate on, the reasons Bergman persists in using the same names for his female characters who are not the same. The names of Eva and Anna turn up in Shame and The Silence, and the names of all his leading female characters in The Silence, Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, and The Passion of Anna begin with an A or an E, which are the letters tagged on to the name of the von Sydow character in The Passion of Anna.
Does this mean something? I think not, but it is there. I also have the feeling that Bergman, who has a marvelous way of setting his scene and introducing his characters, especially the peripheral ones, becomes, in his role of film creator, rather like one of his own heroes. The director circles in closer and closer to the heart of the film, finally to find a void, or a secret so private that we can only guess its meaning.
Getting to the heart of it, however, can be stimulating, and involves its own kind of mounting suspense as one grasps at casual remarks for clues. Elis, the architect, is an amateur photographer, fascinated by faces. When he shows his work to Andreas, he says, with resignation: "I don't imagine that I reach into the soul with these photographs. [They can show] only an interplay of forces."
Of the four principal characters, Andreas is the one on screen the most, and the one least known. He has been in prison (for forgery, striking a policeman) and he has been married, but all we know of the marriage (via a flashback) is that his wife has accused him of having "cancer of the have tumors all over you." He does, however, talk at length about things like "the freedom to be humiliated."
It is somewhat ironic that Bergman, the great humanist, insists that his heroes suffer so profoundly from abstract malaises that they seem positively superhuman.
There is no confusion in The Passion of Anna between reality and fantasy - it is all fantasy. That, at least, is the effect of a device by which, at four points in the film, he steps back and asks each of his principal actors about his conception of the role he is playing. The result is not so much enlightenment as it is an expression of Bergman's appreciation to his stars, particularly von Sydow, Miss Ullmann, and Miss Andersson, who have contributed so much to so many of his films.
They are all superb here, and Bergman gives each of them extraordinary moments of cinematic truth, monologues of sustained richness and drama that are the hallmarks of Bergman's best work, when the camera, without moving, records the birth of a character largely through facial expression and dialogue.
I must admit that ever since Persona I've had trouble distinguishing between Miss Ullmann and Miss Andersson (at a certain point, all Bergman actresses look like Jessica Tandy). However, I shall always remember a scene in The Passion of Anna in which Miss Andersson, a little bit tight on wine, recalls her introduction to God, illustrated in one of her children's book as a handsome old man hovering just above the earth.
She is asked if she still believes in Him. She looks at her husband hesitantly and asks: "Do I?" As in all Bergman films, such moments cut through all the abstractions and make The Passion of Anna as vivid and moving as you demand that it be.


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