The U.S. title, The Passion of Anna, of Ingmar Bergman’s The Passion (1969) is misleading, since it’s difficult to conclude that the film is really about Anna’s (Liv Ullmann) passion. Perhaps the American distributor simply thought it sounded sexier. In any case, the film is one of Bergman’s more flawed works. Of course, flawed Bergman is apt to be a lot more worthwhile than the best of many lesser filmmakers. That’s the case here—and for that matter, even some of Bergman’s flaws are not uninteresting. The single greatest drawback to The Passion isn’t Bergman’s insistence on breaking up the drama by inserting interviews with the four main actors (though the device only partly works). Rather it’s the film’s strange narrative jump from Andreas Winkelman (Max von Sydow) having an affair with Eva Vergerus (Bibi Andersson) to living with Anna Fromm (Liv Ullmann). It just happens, leaving the film feeling like there’s a chunk missing. Knowing Bergman’s work, this is probably deliberate, and it does tie in to the fact that The Passion is an often inconclusive work—even to the extent that it contains an unresolved mystery element involving an apparent psycho who tortures and kills animals. The problem is that the jump doesn’t work.
However, the film’s examination of the closed-off relationships of the principals—and especially Anna’s obsession to create a harmonious past for herself that never existed—finds Bergman at the top of his game. His depiction of his characters living in their personally created hells where interaction is never more than surface deep is very fine, and the final image of Andreas caught in a tightening grip of indecision about going forward or backward until he ultimately goes nowhere is as good as anything Bergman ever did. Flawed, but still brilliant, The Passion is an essential.