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The Boston Phoenix Saving Private Lying

Liv Ullmann redeems Ingmar Bergman's Confessions

By Peter Keough

JANUARY 4, 1999:  In a time when the focus has been on the damage done by telling lies, not much attention has been paid to the sometimes greater trauma inflicted by telling the truth. Ingmar Bergman, an artist who is a master of both truth and lies, has, since his retirement from directing movies, explored the facts and fictions of his own life, in particular the troubled relationship between his mother and father. Private Confessions is his second script on the subject, following the Bille August-directed Best Intentions, (1992). Confessions, the third directorial effort from Bergman protégé Liv Ullmann, surpasses the messy melodramatics of that effort, rendering this searing confessional with icy honesty, incandescent passion, and a canny insight into truth and hypocrisy in all their ambiguity.

Perhaps the biggest difference between a Bergman screenplay directed by the master himself and one helmed by Ullmann is that the spectacle of an aging, ailing clergyman vomiting after receiving communion is, in fact, a precursor to a happy ending, or at least as happy as such a dour meditation on human frailty and desire can get. The clergyman is Jacob (Max Von Sydow at the top of his form), uncle of Bergman's mother, Anna (a crabbed, charismatic Pernilla August) and her spiritual mentor and adviser.

In the film's opening chapter, he catches her in an unguarded moment of anguish and despair. In a harrowing dialogue, she unburdens herself of a guilty secret. She has been cheating on her husband, Henrik (Samuel Fröler), a tormented and struggling pastor of a frozen provincial town, with Tomas (Thomas Hanzon), a young divinity student and friend of the family.

Jacob's response is predictable but as excruciatingly portrayed by Von Sydow, nonetheless torturously determined. She must abandon her lover, he tells her, and confess everything to her husband. Anna refuses; she has discovered vitality, meaning, and sensuousness in Tomas, who regards her husband contemptuously as a whiny, ineffectual weakling, refuses. But like lying, truth-telling weaves its own tangled web, and in the next chapter, set a few weeks later at a lakeside retreat where she and Henrik are enjoying a rare respite together, she unleashes the truth with sadistic, destructive satisfaction.

Luther, as Jacob points out to Anna, was a fine theologian but not too bright about human relationships. One of his errors, he suggests, was replacing the sacrament of confession with a pre-Freudian kind of therapeutic conversation, the "private confessions" of the title. As a result, the purgative ritual is lost, as is the sense that time consists of moments of climax and closure, of cleansing and renewal. The chronological structure of the film reflects this lost sensibility as its five chapters skip back and forth through time, from 20 years after Anna's revelations to years before when she had confessed her crisis of faith to Jacob on the eve of her confirmation (the oddly dallying relationship between the pair suggesting that the avuncular cleric himself might have a peccadillo or two to own up to). Her confessions are seen not as a consummation but as a continuum, a sickness unto death only momentarily relieved by Jacob's catharsis, years later, following Holy Communion.

No such catharsis is granted the viewer, however. At times, Confessions can be as exhausting as prolonged and fruitless couple counseling -- the emotions are almost always high beam when not painfully suppressed, and the angst and anger unremitting. Sometimes you just want to slap the characters and tell them to get over it. The biggest offenders are the men -- they are spineless tadpoles whose insipidity sometimes makes August's strength seem like stridency.

But Ullmann does bring an un-Bergmanesque levity to the proceedings. In the chapter relating Anna and Tomas's first tryst, which takes place at the magisterial estate of a friend, he is shown cowed and naked under a forbidding family portrait while waiting for her to receive him in the bedroom.

With the towering figure of Bergman looming over her shoulder, Ullmann fares much better. After the uncertainty of her first effort, Sofie (1992), she demonstrated a depth and range worthy of her mentor with the rich epic Kristin Lavransdatter (1997) and now gives us the intense intimacy of this exquisite chamber piece. The penance for her Confessions would be for her to take her place among the great filmmakers of the world.


True Lies

"It's about lies," says director Liv Ullmann about Private Confessions. "It even puts the question 'When is a lie maybe a good lie and when is the truth maybe a bad truth?'

"It depends on who you are being honest to," she continues in a phone interview from Florida. "How much can they bear? You can't come home and be completely honest to a person who is going to be in pain for the rest of their lives. It might be good for the person who wants to be honest. But maybe it isn't good for the [other] person."

Ullmann was in the midst of directing Kristin Lavransdatter when Ingmar Bergman sent her his script of Private Confessions and asked her to direct it. "It gave me great happiness, and it also made me react like a little child," says Ullmann. "I have to find what is his truth -- what is he really wanting to say? Not just reading the script a few times and then looking for my truth, but looking for his truth and then making my truth agree with that. You have to come as close as you can to the man, and probably I'm right for Ingmar because I know him so very, very well."

Ullmann, after all, starred in several of Bergman's greatest films and lived with him for some five years, during which time they had a child together, Linn Ullmann, now a novelist and a literary critic at the Oslo newspaper Dagbladet.

Ullmann is tremendously pleased with her actors' performances in Private Confessions. "Pernilla August is full of secrets, full of emotions and stories and experiences and a lot of dark sides. It's not something she would verbalize to anyone face to face. If you met her, you would just think what a beautiful, normal, sweet woman and mother, because as a person she gives so much warmth and energy -- and no hostility, nothing like that. But you say 'camera,' and then all these secrets come tumbling out, and her eyes, they change. That's what makes the best actors and actresses -- it's the secrets. When the camera rolls, there the secrets are."

As for Max von Sydow, Ullmann at first found herself a little shy with him, because for years they had acted together (in films such as The Shame, The Passion of Anna, and The Emigrants), and she didn't know how he would feel about taking direction from her. "But I think that's what's so wonderful about good actors. They get their parts, and they do them, even if the part is 'Now I'm going to have a different relationship with somebody that I know very well in another way.' After the first or second day, I had always been his director, and he had always been my actor."

During a 12-minute take -- which is extraordinarily long by American standards -- von Sydow suddenly became too emotional to say anything for a full minute. Ullmann thinks it may have had something to do with his personal life rather than with his character, since his marriage was breaking up at the time.

"It was so right for the whole thing. He knew that I would not stop shooting. I knew that he would use the moment and translate it into the role of the priest. It's one of the most stunning close-up scenes I've ever watched."

Ullmann's next film, The Faithless, also will involve a script by Ingmar Bergman, this time based on an experience from his own life. It's a story about a director/writer and an actress who starts to assume the persona of a woman with whom the director once had a relationship. "I think it is something which I have a lot more freedom on than he," says Ullmann, "because he's tied to the real story, and I'm not. It had nothing to do with me." Pre-production begins in March, with plans to start filming in August.

Bergman at first was opposed to the images Ullmann used in the ending of Private Confessions. "But now he loves it. He really loves the ending," says Ullmann. "I want endings on films to have some kind of conclusion and at the same time be an open conclusion. I don't want them to be dark. I want people to have hope. And the new script (The Faithless) is even darker, and I want to find a way also to give hope."

-- David Brooks Andrews


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