Friday, November 11, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: The Passion of Anna (1969)

The Passion of Anna (1969) *** ½
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman.
Written by: Ingmar Bergman.
Starring: Max von Sydow (Andreas Winkelman), Liv Ullmann (Anna Fromm), Bibi Andersson (Eva Vergerus), Erland Josephson (Elis Vergerus), Erik Hell (Johan Andersson), Sigge Fürst (Verner).

Ingmar Bergman is one of my favorite directors of all time. His films are serious, probing examinations of faith, or the lack thereof, and human relationships. He was one of the first foreign language masters whose films I started watching – yet because his filmography is so large, there is still quite a few of his films I have to see. His 1969 film, The Passion of Anna (which should have simply been called The Passion) is not one of his masterpieces, but it is still a damn fine film.

The film stars Bergman regular Max von Sydow as Andreas Winkleman, an ex-convict, whose wife has left him, and who now lives a rather solitary existence on his dilapidated “farm” on a Swedish island. He comes into contact with almost no one, but doesn’t really seem to mind that. He likes his solitude. Things change one day when Anna (Liv Ullman) shows up at his door and asks to use the phone. Andreas listens to her phone conversation, and can tell that Anna is in a desperate state. She leaves, but forgets her purse, and curiosity gets the best of Andreas, who goes through it and finds a letter from her former husband – in which he explains why he must leave her, because if he doesn’t they are only “going to inflict more emotional and physical violence on each other”. When Andreas goes to return the purse, he meets the couple Anna is staying with – Eva and Elis Vergerus (Bibi Andersson and Erland Josephson) and their dysfunctional little family of friends is complete. By the end of the movie, Andreas will wind up working for Elis, sleeping with Eva once, and then living with Anna for months. Months in which she claims to live in “the truth”, while lying constantly – claiming her marriage was a happy one. He doesn’t know that the accident that caused the death of her husband and their son was Anna’s fault.

In some ways, The Passion of Anna continues some of the things that Bergman did in Persona – breaking through the fourth wall to remind the audience that they are watching a film. In Persona, there is a moment when the film seems to burn in front of our eyes, and in the end, he shows us the camera crew. In The Passion of Anna, Bergman conducts four interviews with the four principal actors, all of whom are given an opportunity to wax poetic about their characters. In Persona, this breaking through worked – but in The Passion of Anna, I found these interviews to be a distraction, and broke a cardinal rule of filmmaking – show don’t tell. The truth is that having these four great actors talk about their characters isn’t necessary, because their performances are so good, that they do not need to be explained. Max von Sydow, who made countless movies with Bergman, is excellent as Andreas, the man of solitude, who slowly gets involved with the world again, only to be left more beaten and broken than before. Liv Ullman is tremendous as Anna, the woman who is hard to get a read on, because she lies constantly, while proclaiming she lives in the truth. Bibi Andersson is excellent as the sexual, yet fragile Eva. Erland Josephson has the most straight forward role, but plays it well. Add in Erik Hell as a persecuted man on the island, and you have an excellent cast – one that doesn’t need to be explained.

It is quite clear that The Passion of Anna is one of Bergman’s angriest films. As they began to make the film, Bergman and Ullman decided to end their off-screen romantic relationship. Bergman seems to almost be punishing Ullman in the film – given her a wholly unsympathetic character to play (and according to Ullman, cutting out the moments where she tried to make Anna more sympathetic). They clearly had a complex relationship off-screen, and Ullman continued to make films for Bergman.

To me, The Passion of Anna fits in nicely with Bergman films like The Hour of the Wolf (1967) and Shame (1968). None of these are, to me anyway, among Bergman’s masterpieces, but they make up an interesting period for the director between Persona (1966) and Cries and Whispers (1972) – both of which are masterworks. Part of it is that Bergman is learning to film in color – The Passion of Anna followed only Shame in his color filmography – but part of it seems to be Bergman figuring out where to go from Persona. To use that favorite, and clichéd film critic term, The Passion of Anna is flawed. Yet it is still fascinating, and at times, masterful.

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