Private Confessions

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PrivateConfessions directedby Liv Ullmann
Earlyin Private Confessions, the latest film written by Ingmar Bergman, AnnaBergman (Pernilla August), a young wife, goes to an elderly clergyman namedJacob (Max von Sydow) to confess that she's been violating her marriagevows by having an affair with a theology student. "Confession," though,is a slightly tricky proposition here, since Martin Luther long ago overthrewthat formal rite, replacing it with what he called "private conversations."That "splendid reformer," says Jacob of Luther with a rueful, winkingsmile, knew precious little of human nature.
What you have here, in otherwords, is the great Divided Protestant, splayed between the older certaintiesof the universal church on one hand and the lure of modern heresiarchs like Ibsen and Freud on the other. To encounter a new work by this ferocious dramaturgeof the split modern soul in an American movie theater in 1999 is, to put itmildly, something like a miracle, one that offers certain immediate clarifications:Next to the towering Swede, latter-day Nordic pretenders like Lars Von Trierand Thomas Vinterberg are the most pipsqueak of melancholy Danes, trendy dandelionsblowing neath the granite immensity of Mount Sinai. Bergman, to shift metaphoricalgears slightly, was, more than any other filmmaker, the Moses of the art film,especially to American audiences for whom The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries in the 50s announced film as a form that could hold its ownagainst even the most ambitious and recondite fiction and drama. And so he hascontinued. As David Thomson wrote, "[L]ooking out from Sweden, Bergmanhas seen no reason to abandon his faith in a select audience, prepared and trainedfor a diligent intellectual and emotional involvement in cinema." Of coursethere's now a whole generation of supposed cinephiles, people a decadeor more out of college (forget about those younger), for whom Thomson'sprescription probably verges on the incomprehensible. For such viewers, PrivateConfessions is the closest thing to time travel that the cinema offers:Forget about The Prince of Egypt, your real ticket to the Old Testamentis the Upstart of Uppsala. Nominally, Bergman has beenretired for more than 15 years, but you have to wonder whether he regrets thatmuch-publicized departure following 1982's Fanny and Alexander,because he has shown every sign of chafing under its restrictions. Now 80, hewrote and directed In the Presence of a Clown, which was shown at lastyear's Cannes and New York film festivals; an exuberant riffing on oldthemes of art and identity, the work is a feature film apart from the fact thatit was shot on video (and will remain so: Bergman apparently doesn't wantit distributed theatrically). But his most notable screenworks since hanging up his lens-finder have been two screenplays about his parents'marriage, filmed by surrogate directors. Both Bille August's The Best Intentions (1992) and now Private Confessions, which was mountedby longtime Bergman star (and the mother of one of his children) Liv Ullmann,have the urgency of unfinished business, as if Bergman spent his career examininghis personal anguish and then, one morning in retirement, woke up to realizehe'd forgotten to peer into a couple of crucial dark corners lurking withinthe brightly remembered childhood of Fanny and Alexander. The Best Intentions chronicledthe relations of Anna and Henrik Bergman from their first meeting through acourtship made difficult by her family's interference, and then a marriage that went from romantic to thorny due to their very different personalities(he prickly and principled, she impetuous and willful) and social expecta ions(while he was happy as a provincial rector, she yearned for Stockholm'sglitter and importance). The focus in August's film was on the troubledvicissitudes of personality and circumstance, of male and female, viewed from a perspective that no doubt began with young Ingmar's memories and continuedwith his elderly ruminations and inspection of the surviving evidence (muchof which is also discussed in his memoir The Magic Lantern). Rather than extending thattale's narrative, Private Confessions looks behind the facade itnow forms, to find?or conjure?a hidden, more deeply significant reality.Set in the 1920s, the drama's first section, as powerfully and subtly imaginedas anything in Bergman, has Anna confessing her infidelity to the patriarchalJacob, and being given two stern commands in return: break off relations withthe young man in question immediately, and tell Henrik everything. he balks at both ideas,naturally. She's in love with the theology student, Tomas (Thomas Hanzon),and doesn't see why she shouldn't be happy. But she's even moreresistant to the idea of telling Henrik the truth. He is sensitive and overburdenedand the painful, unnecessary revelations could only harm him, she says. What'smost striking in these exchanges, though, is the unexamined tie: the one betweenAnna and Jacob. Why does she thrust her problems upon him so directly? Why doeshe respond with such sympathy, a hint of circumspection and those unequivocaldictates? Is everything here as it seems, or not? The film's drama comesfull circle to answer those questions, or rather, to give us the informationand impetus we need to attempt answering them ourselves. It is structured inseveral sequences that stretch over three decades, each involving a different"private confession." In the second, for example, Henrik (Samuel Froler)and Anna go off on a vacation in the country where she, as Jacob had instructed,tells him everything about her affair. Her manner is blunt and almost cruelin its unsparing detail. But the scene, the first in which we see Henrik, playssomewhat differently from what we might have expected: Reacting with a kindof stoic dignity and bitter resignation, Henrik's not nearly as weak anddelicate as she portrayed him. Indeed, they both have the rugged, disillusionedfamiliarity of people who've been married more than a decade, and she saysshe regards him as her best friend. The real mystery here, wegradually sense, doesn't involve this marriage's dynamics, which wereamply described in the previous film. Private Confessions is not, infact, a duet. It centers on Anna and keeps returning to her longings, the abundantevidence of her recurring need to transgress and then confess. In this, Bergmanunites a career-long fascination with women and a more recent fixation on thefigure of his mother. The outcome doesn't return him to the womb, as itwere; rather, it leaves him contemplating an enigma more universal than personal,and more tied to the premises of philosophy than those of psychology. The film's feminineatmosphere is, in any case, beautifully served by its two leading women, beforeand behind the camera. Joining the extraordinary list of Bergman actresses,Pernilla August has become one of that gallery's most accomplished andimportant practitioners, not only as the representation of Bergman's motherbut as probably the last major female character in his work (and how'sthis fr spanning the millennia: She next appears in the new Star Wars).Compact, focused, interestingly pretty rather than classically beautiful, shemakes Anna both intensely self-involved and intently outward-looking, a womanstraining against a cage whose ultimate bars may be not society's barriersbut her own headstrong temperament. Like many of Bergman'sactresses, August comes from the theater and knows how to occupy and enliventhe entire camera frame. In the second sequence, when Anna and Henrik go ontheir country retreat but before she makes her confession, there's a scenewhere she goes to a lake for a quick dip and he follows her to watch. When shecomes out of the water, shivering though she's shouted repeatedly, "it'sso warm!" he tries to embrace her. Her snake-like shrug in eluding hisarms is as eloquent as any rebuff you can imagine; it's like a full-body"no!" Ullmann, the onscreen museof the mid-60s trilogy that still looks like the pinnacle of Bergman'swork (Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Shame), directs PrivateConfessions with a great sense of balance and delicacy. Shot by Sven Nykvist,the film's look is poised carefully between the colorful artificialityof old photos and theater sets and the subtleties of a less self-aware realism.Its visual allure, in fact, is such that the period decors effectively becomea part of the drama, asking whether the passions Bergman registers are timelessor belong entirely to an era caught between Kierkegaard and Spielberg. Bergman himself, of course,already belongs to history, which is why it's so amazing that yet anotherstunningly fresh creation from him arrives before us at this late date. Looking at Jacob, Anna says that his hands look like God's must. There's asimilar biblical grandeur to Bergman's late work. If we lived in a worldwhere art rather than ignorance prevailed, Private Confessions wouldopen on 3000 screens to Titanic-scale business. As is, the lucky fewcan line up at Film Forum to see this living patriarch look back at one named Jacob and find an odd sympathy there, a recognition that behind all the basemotives and truths that turn out to be lies, there is still the Truth, touchedoccasionally by artists. Ullmann calls the film a"religious drama." It certainly is that, and one of the rare moviesnot to dishonor the term.

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