Anna (Pernilla August), the character on whom Private Confessions pivots, struggles with issues that Bergman has regularly explored in the past, experiencing crises of both religious faith and marital fidelity during the movie's course or, more exactly, discourse, because the film is organized as a series of five conversations. In the first of these dialogues, Anna chances on her Uncle Jacob (Max von Sydow), a Lutheran minister, as he sits on a park bench; what begins as a casual chat takes an unexpectedly dark turn when Anna's face clouds with sadness and, at Jacob's prompting, she admits to an affair. In a wickedly ironic twist, Anna eventually reveals that she is betraying her husband, Jacob's fellow clergyman and subordinate Henrik Bergman (Samuel Fröler), with family friend Tomas (Thomas Hanzon), a theology student preparing for the ministry. Tomas fills her with a passion entirely absent in her marriage, Anna tearfully explains she loves and cannot endure life without him. Jacob, although clearly moved by Anna's story, nevertheless issues a stern directive: Tell Henrik of the adultery and abandon Tomas. Anna balks, claiming that Henrik like Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men can't handle the truth. The two part on this dissonant note, with Anna rejecting Jacob's advice and to frame the scene in more Roman Catholic terms defiantly refusing to repent.
This initial confession, in others' hands, might lead the film down a predictably melodramatic path surreptitious meetings, shocking revelations, bitter recriminations, definitive resolutions and Private Confessions certainly features some of these elements, but Bergman never deploys them in the expected ways. In the second section of the film, for example, Anna at first appears to have reconsidered Jacob's counsel, and she suddenly tells the blindsided Henrik of the affair. But as their conversation continues, it becomes clear that Anna's motives are far more complex and potentially devious than the dutiful following of Jacob's simple advice: Instead of asking forgiveness with her truth-telling, Anna is inflicting punishment, exacting revenge from her alternately petulant, demanding and weak-willed husband for their arid, unfulfilling marriage. (Viewers who have seen The Best Intentions which starred August and Fröler in the same roles will feel this all the more strongly, but Private Confessions stands quite capably on its own, efficiently revealing the dangerous undercurrents that swirl just beneath the seemingly placid surface of Henrik and Anna's relationship.)
Bergman continues to complicate Anna's actions and our reactions in the subsequent three conversations, as he abandons chronology and begins shifting back and forth in time, providing new details that color what once appeared black-and-white. When we belatedly meet Tomas in the film's third section set some months before Anna's confession to Jacob he is far from the man we expect: painfully shy, diffident, plagued by guilt. And when we leap forward by a decade for the film's fourth section a reunion between Anna and the dying Jacob the degree to which Anna is willing to suppress or manipulate aspects of the truth is made still more evident. Bergman, however, does not judge Anna harshly: Her deceptions are for always understandable and sometimes even benign ends, and she remains a sympathetic figure throughout (a tribute to August's wrenching performance and Ullmann's direction). Without ever excusing Anna's personal failings, Bergman assigns a large share of the blame to the church and its insistence on clear-cut choices despite life's muddy ambiguities. Not only are the three men in the film members of the clergy all deformed on some level by the rigidity of the church's teachings Bergman carefully braids the narrative with references to the major Christian sacraments: confession and marriage most obviously, but also communion, confirmation, the last rites. In Personal Confessions' final section, we travel back to Anna's confirmation day, and she admits her lack of faith the basis for the questioning, searching woman we've encountered in the rest of the film.
Far more profound and troubling than that other current examination of temptation and faithlessness in marriage Stanley Kubrick's laughably silly Eyes Wide Shut Private Confessions denies Anna any comforting assurances but does provide another kind of confirmation, demonstrating the undiminished vitality of one of the world's cinematic masters.
Plays at 8 p.m. July 24-25 at Webster University.