The Passion Of Anna Review

If it’s true that Ingmar Bergman is one of the most ‘difficult’ of filmmakers – whatever we take that term to mean – then The Passion Of Anna (originally entitled En Passion) is one of his most difficult films. It’s disjointed, elusive and sometimes deliberately distanced; all qualities which make it very hard to watch and even harder to enjoy. But, as so often with Bergman, sticking with it brings extraordinary rewards

Andreas Winkelman (Von Sydow) is a simple farmer who lives on a small, isolated island. His only contact with other people comes through his occasional, banal conversations with his neighbour Johan (Erik Hell). One day, a woman called Anna (Ullmann), walking with a crutch, comes to his house and asks to use a telephone. Andreas lets her and listens in on her call, discovering that something is seriously wrong with her life. When she leaves, she forgets her handbag and Andreas looks through it, discovering a letter from her husband that indicates an unhappy marriage. He returns it to the house of Elis and Eva Vergerus (Josephson and Andersson) where she is staying and is asked to stay for dinner. Gradually, as he becomes closely involved with Anna and Eva, Andreas feels his life coming apart under the pressure of maintaining the illusion of sanity and happiness.

Apart from The Faro Document, a documentary made for television, The Passion of Anna is the last of the Faro films, made by Bergman on the island where he lived with Liv Ullmann and, in the immediate aftermath of their break-up, alone. It’s also the last occasion on which he placed Max Von Sydow at the centre of a narrative – the actor’s appearances in The Touch are largely in a supporting capacity to the central relationship between Elliott Gould and Liv Ullmann. As in the two previous Faro films - Hour of the Wolf and Shame - the film is largely concerned with the relationship between a man and woman, played by Von Sydow and Ullmann. Whereas Hour of the Wolf deals with a mental breakdown and Shame a social one, The Passion of Anna deals with the breakdown of a relationship which is closely connected with the collapse of an individual consciousness. This causes some problems, both of interpretation and visualisation, and the narrative thread is certainly not as strong as that of the two earlier films. Shame in particular is such a viscerally powerful and emotionally direct piece of work that anything following would have been a disappointment – and Anna doesn’t do itself any favours by including the climactic scenes from Shame as a dream sequence. But if the film is approached as a series of thematic variations rather than as a conventional narrative then it begins to make more sense.

The central theme of crippling isolation is a familiar one to followers of Bergman’s work. In some of his early work, a panacea is found, however temporary – the Professor in Wild Strawberries finds a sense of self-worth in his memories for example – but as the work of the 1960s moves on, we constantly see characters lost in their own lack of connection with the world. The ultimate example is Tomas Ericsson in Winter Light, the pastor who can connect with neither god or his congregation and winds up in hopelessly hypocritical communion with a deity whom he no longer believes is listening. But we see it too in other films, such as in Hour of the WolfShame, the connection of love between Jan and Eva isn’t enough to save them from an isolated refugee existence in an uncaring foreign country. In Anna, Andreas is isolated at the start but, superficially, reasonably content. The irony is that the move towards socialisation in meeting Elis and Eva simply isolates him further as he moves into a place in his own head where he seeks refuge from the demands they make on him. Bergman emphasises this in a brilliant scene where Andreas gets drunk and the camera observes him from above, as if from the perspective of the same uncaring, uncommunicative god who destroyed Pastor Ericsson.

The name Vergerus in Bergman’s work usually indicates some kind of malevolence but in this case it’s only really malevolent if looked at from the point of view of Andreas. Indeed, Eva Vergerus is just as isolated in her own way, as she explains in a memorably poignant monologue where she discusses the lack of emotional connection in her marriage and her sense of pointlessness – “What kind of poison corrodes the best in us?” she asks, suggesting that spiritual isolation is a slow, weathering process rather than a sudden realisation. Eva sleeps with Andreas but later in the film, he denies to Anna that he had an affair with her and, in a way, he’s not lying. The sex is a sort of desperate reaching out rather than a fulfilment and it doesn’t solve anything. All that happens is that this begins to bring home to Andreas how little he can do to either help himself or anyone else.

If we take the film as an examination of a growing appreciation of one’s own meaninglessness, then this is brilliantly expressed in the initially puzzling subplot of the violent killing of Andreas’ animals. The discovery of the carnage is a powerfully suggestive scene in its own right – perhaps a metaphor of Andreas’ mental state – but the subsequent events sum up the theme of disconnection. A local hermit, Johan, is accused of killing the animals – because he lives alone and has no pets – and is attacked by an angry mob who beat him while interrogating him. Having got a false confession out of him, they leave but his humiliation causes him to kill himself. Andreas receives a suicide note addressed to him and he muses how he was incapable to stop or prevent any of what has happened. So, carnage followed by torture and then suicide all occur within Andreas’ immediate vicinity and he realises that he has had no impact on any of these events, for good or bad. The awesome spiritual emptiness which this evokes is one of the keys to his breakdown.

Meanwhile, the central relationship between Andreas and Anna falls apart under the pressure of pretending that everything is fine. As so often in Bergman, the shadow of the past continually descends upon the present, revealing the cracks in the lies that gild the surface of happiness. The two people live together and seem content but it’s superficial. Andreas knows all along that the happy marriage evoked by Anna, in her story about the day that her husband and child were killed in a car accident, is a sham and that it’s entirely possible that the deaths were not accidental at all. This central lie, along with the comforting myth of happiness that Andreas remembers with his dead wife, destroys both of them and they end up in direct conflict and then, literally, separated – one in a car, the other lost on a road without knowing his way home. The sense of being “alone, together” was explored in the closing sections of Bergman’s early film Summer With Monika and is a constant theme in his later work, notably in Scenes From A Marriage and the disturbing From The Life of the Marionettes. In a sense, the ending is a relief for both characters, their literal separation mirroring and bringing closure to their emotional one.

If my lengthy discussion suggests that The Passion of Anna is a dry, intellectual film then that would do it a disservice. Indeed, it comes across as a surprisingly passionate piece of visual filmmaking, largely thanks to Bergman and Sven Nykvist’s use of colour. This wasn’t Bergman’s first film in colour - that was Now About These Women in 1963 – but it’s his first to use colour for direct emotional resonance. There’s a tentative feeling to this and it’s certainly the case that it only began to completely work in Cries And Whispers. But some scenes here are beautifully achieved, especially the scene where Eva, bathed in red light, begins seducing Andreas while dancing to an old swing record. Surprisingly, the colour photography doesn’t mitigate the bleakness of the narrative as you might expect. If anything, it seems to add a documentary realism to proceedings. Bergman also produces one classic effect which is one of the most memorable things in his oeuvre – the opening visual illusion which produces three suns as Andreas stares into the sky. Since the film is about the lies we tell ourselves and each other, this bit of visual fakery is entirely appropriate.

The acting is as good as you would expect from a Bergman film of this period. It is, in some respects, part of a transitional period for the director. Max Von Sydow, who had appeared in a number of films for Bergman, does not appear again after The Touch and Bibi Andersson made only two more films with him. The presence of Erland Josephson indicates the way he gradually came to prominence in Bergman’s work, notably in the two long TV series Scenes From A Marriage and the gruelling but brilliant Face To Face, both of which were cut down to feature length for international cinema release. Liv Ullmann, of course, dominates much of Bergman’s work in the 1970s and, as a side note, has directed a film based on a script by Bergman himself, the excellent Faithless.

The Passion of Anna has not dated as well as some other films of this period and compared to Shame or Hour of the Wolf it seems laboured and predictable. The use of then fashionable post-modern devices doesn’t really work either. The film contains interviews with the actors about their views on the characters they’re playing, snippets which tend to achieve little other than make you reflect on how much younger Max Von Sydow looks without his beard. There’s also a narration from Bergman which doesn’t help much either – although the final line of this is probably pivotal to understanding his conception of the world as a place where we, no matter how hard we try, we can’t hide from ourselves. Overall, however, it is a powerful and disturbing film which contains scenes that resonate in the mind even though you’re not always sure why – Elis’ collection of photographs of violent acts by people, the love scene in silhouette, the blood of the animals against the mud of Faro’s winter. It also reminds us that we are all prisoners of our pasts, a theme which recurs at the very centre of his next major film, Cries and Whispers.

The Disc

Long unseen in the UK, The Passion Of Anna has been released by MGM in Region 1 as part of their Bergman box set – now delayed until April – and as an individual disc. It’s a very nice disc indeed and shows signs of great care and attention to detail which bodes well for the amended discs of Shame and Hour of the Wolf.

The film is presented in its correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio but is not anamorphically enhanced. The transfer is generally excellent. There is a small amount of damage to the print but nothing too serious and the image is generally very clean. Colours come across magnificently, especially the reds and greens, and the level of contrast is good. There is also plenty of detail to the image that makes it a pleasure to watch. English subtitles are optional; these are white and easy to read. All in all, I thought this was very impressive.

There are two soundtracks available, both in the original mono. The Swedish language track is absolutely fine – dialogue is very clear and the ambient sounds are very effective. There is also a track dubbed into Spanish.

Quite a few interesting extras are provided. By far the most unusual is a reading by Elliott Gould of what is called a short story of the film. This is actually Bergman’s translation of the script into narrative form and is very interesting to listen to. Whether it adds anything to aid understanding of the film or simply provides yet more questions is a moot point but Bergman fans will be fascinated. We also get a commentary on the film from academic and Jesuit priest Marc Gervais. This is somewhat hesitant and not altogether satisfying as his speaking is slow and his comments somewhat brief and separated by long gaps. But he does have some interesting things to say about postmodernism and Bergman’s Faro films. The 20 minute documentary “Disintegration of Passion” contains a lot of clips from the film and some interviews with Ullmann, Andersson and Josephson which are brief but useful. There are also some extracts from the long ‘Man Alive’ interview with Bergman which is featured in full on the Ingmar Bergman Collection bonus disc in the box set. Rounding out the disc are a photo gallery – including the original Swedish poster – very short interview with the aforementioned three actors and the theatrical trailer.

Although English subtitles are provided for the main feature, none of the extra features have hard of hearing subtitles.

I found The Passion of Anna compelling and disturbing and it’s certainly a must-see for Bergman fans or for anyone who likes challenging cinema. In some ways it’s unsatisfying but the questions it raises and doesn’t answer are often interesting in themselves. The DVD is very good indeed and well worth buying, although fans will most likely want to wait for the box set to be reissued.

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