Ingmar Bergman’s international fame did not stem from making feel-good movies or popcorn movies. His 1966 masterpiece “Persona” with Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann can be classified a “psychological thriller, and “The Passion [of Anna]” (1969) has a mystery of the “Whodunit?” form, though the identity of the criminal remains a mystery at the end. (I hope that isn’t a “plot spoiler”; who watches a Bergman film for its plot? Not even “The Seventh Seal” IMO.)
Bergman was forced to expand upon (or change) the title from “The Passion” for American release. It seems to me that the main character is not the smug moralist Anna (Liv Ullmann) but the lost Andreas Winkleman (Max von Sydow), who becomes her latest victim. The deceased husband with whom she claims to have had a model marriage was also named Andreas, and he died in an automobile crash with Anna at the wheel, an end that is very nearly repeated (as in Claude Chabrol’s “Merçi pout le chocolate” which I just watched (in which the clumsiness is deliberate as Andreas’s does not seem to be, btw).
Anna was partly crippled by the earlier accident and hobbles up to the house on a little-populated island in the Baltic Sea to use the phone of Andreas. He eavesdrops on her pained call and reads a folded-up letter in the purse that Anna leaves in his house. (The letter has a structural similarity with the long story the nurse played by Bibi Andersson tells the mute one played by Liv Ullmann in “Persona.”) The letter from the now-dead (first) Andreas gives the lie to the idealized representations of the marriage Anna makes.
Before she moves in with her second Andreas, he has an affairette with Eva Vergerus (played by Bibi Andersson), who also wanders by. Eva tells him about an affair she has had that torments her husband whose self-image does not permit expression of jealousy. Elis Vergerus (played by Erland Josephson) is a difficult-to-like successful architect and avocational photographer.
Before decamping to the bed of Andreas II, Anna was staying with the Vergeruses. If she is a relative of either of them, I missed it. Her staying there seems to me a dramatic convenience.
Ullman’s character in “Persona” was affected by images from Vietnam and from the Nazi holocaust. Her character and von Sydow’s in “Passion” are appalled by the vicious cruelty being visited on the island’s animals. Andreas finds a dachshund puppy that has been hanged (I mean in a hangman’s noose) and saves him. Some sheep and a horse do not fare as well. A loner (played by Erik Hell) to whom Andreas was kind is first suspected, then terrorized and humiliated. As I already noted, the sadistic animal abuser is not found out by the islanders or by the viewer. (Bergman in Images: My Life in Film said: “My philosophy (even today) is that there exists an evil that cannot be explained – a virulent, terrifying evil – and humans are the only animals to possess it. An evil that is irrational and not bound by law. Cosmic. Causeless. Nothing frightens people more than incomprehensible, inexplainable evil.”).
I find Anna and Elis insufferable prigs who have very negative effects on their partners. Andreas and Eva are more sympathetic figures in my estimation. Both of them are victims of psychological torture by their mates (that is, Anna and Elis). The ending is despairing, though not especially grim, with Andreas trapped within the frame of usual Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist.
This was the first Bergman film in color (with very vivid reds and no blues) and apparently was a difficult shoot for both Bergman and Nykvist, not least in being rushed. Later, he felt the movie was dated by the short skirts Andersson and Ullmann wore (over black tights). That did not faze me, though I thought the inclusion of interviews with each of the four leading actors about the characters they are playing was a mistake (as Bergman himself decided later). It is the kind of material we are now used to in bonus features. He did not comment on the third-person voice-over narration he supplied at various junctures in the film. They seem a failure of showing, though prolonged telling occurs often in Bergman films (perhaps an indication of his involvement in theater, where telling is more necessary and more accepted).
As with “Persona,” it is difficult to be sure what is supposed to be “really” happening, what is imagined or dreamed. And, as in “Persona,” there are unrelenting close-ups and some long-shots without medium-distance ones.
“Passion” is not as searing as “Shame” (1968), to which it is something of a sequel with the same actors in the same location, or “Cries and Whispers” (1972). Personally, I prefer Bergman’s 1950s movies to those of the 1970s. (He only made television movies after the triumphant memory-of-childhood “Fanny and Alexander” in 1982. The 2003 made-for-television “Saraband” which starred Ullmann and Josephson again, had theatrical release in North America.)