by ALEX CARNEVALE
The difference between a dated film and a timeless one is measured by the lengths of the skirts.
Irish hermits colonized Faro Island, halfway between modern day Norway and Iceland, in the eighth century. Ingmar Bergman shot The Passion of Anna there during the fall of 1969. Anna (Liv Ullman) appears almost out of nowhere in the film’s opening minutes, gripping a shabby cane and asking to make a call to Stockholm. Andreas (Max Von Syndow) forces himself to listen in on the conversation.
In his notes for the film, Bergman writes, “One morning I awakened and decided to abandon the story about the two sisters. It feels too large, too unwieldy and too uninteresting from a cinematic point of view.” Instead The Passion of Anna revolves around Andreas’ interest in two women, neither of whom he has any idea how to love.
Shortly after the introduction of Anna, we meet Eva (Bibi Andersson) who is her more desirable double. It is the performance of her unhappily married woman opposite Andreas that gives meaning to the entire film, for where Anna’s style is basically dated, Eva is disturbingly modern in contrast. “It is hard to realize one day that you’re meaningless,” she informs Andreas, inculcating his worst fears. After the overwhelming eroticism fades, both ourselves and Bergman’s hero are left with not very much. Therefore he looks to Anna.
Bergman hated the miniskirts that Bibi and Liv Ullman suggested their characters wear, but he gave into their instinct. “That misfortune was not noticeable then but revealed itself later,” he complains in Images, “like writing in invisible ink.” Miniskirts are the least of the horrors on the island, since such things come into fashion again. Elsewhere, eight sheep are mutilated and killed; an innocent man is pushed to suicide after he is accused of the crime. Andreas finds a dog almost dead by hanging and serves it milk, but he is fighting a losing battle against the universe. His despair is Bergman’s.
Between scenes of Andreas’ desolate hermit life on the island and his seduction of the women there, Bergman blends straightforward interviews with the actors about portraying their provincial characters. He later regretted including these departures, admitting “the interviews should have been cut out.”
Watching a documentary about a movie alongside the movie itself is not so nearly disorienting today, and it gives The Passion of Anna an inflated importance, making the film’s chaotic events seem to add up to more than they really do. The masterfully subtle performances Bergman receives from Von Sydow and Ullman further distract from the inadequacies of the script. The Passion of Anna is not near one of Bergman’s best films, but it is his messiest.
During the forty-five days it took to shoot The Passion of Anna, Bergman fought endlessly with his cinematographer, Sven Nyquist. Bergman felt he needed The Passion of Anna to be a success after the financial failure of Shame, and he was handicapped in his ambitions by the fact the screenplay he took to Faro Island was incomplete, comprised mainly of “moods.” Images finds Ingmar musing that “The Passion of Anna could have been a good film.”
It was their first color effort together, and although the natural light they received on the island is perfect, the final color of the film is disastrous, frequently displayed as overexposed and especially hard to look at in interior scenes. Sometimes this is intentional, as when infidelity occurs. Other times, the spectrum is simply chaotic. The Passion of Anna is one of Bergman’s only films to not rate highly in its overall presentation, suggesting why he was so frustrated by the process of filming it.
Faro Island for Bergman was a kind of hell, representing what he called a Kingdom of Death. Any tendency towards isolation, The Passion of Anna suggests, is self-annihilating. This anoints the present as a sincere improvement on the past, for the reason that we are all closer together now than we ever were. “You are scared,” Bergman writes, “when you have for a long time been sawing off the branch on which you sit.”
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
“Let It Die” – Sean Rowe (mp3)
“Colors and the Kids” – Sean Rowe (mp3)