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Weekly Alibi Private Confessions

High Infidelity

By Angie Drobnic

JULY 5, 1999:  If Bill and Monica have made adultery seem somehow expected, commonplace and pathetic, Private Confessions is a good antidote. Written by legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and directed by Liv Ullmann, the film is everything that last year's White House soap opera was not: It's a slow meditation on guilt, love, family and God, with a heavy emphasis on how life takes place chiefly in one's own mind, alienated from the experiences of loved ones.

Bergman has returned to familiar territory in his screenplay, fictionalizing the marriage of his own parents, Anna and Henrik, as he has in films like The Best Intentions. The film opens with Anna's confession in 1925 to her spiritual advisor, her Uncle Jacob, that she has begun an affair with a young cleric named Tomas. The film's title is more accurately translated into English as "private conversation," the title Protestant reformer Martin Luther fashioned to name a new kind of confession. The film shows five conversations that Anna has with Jacob, Henrik and Tomas, all of whom happen to be ministers. The truth-telling spans time from when Anna was a young girl, through her marriage and affair, to years later when she visits Jacob again to explain how everything has turned out.

Obviously, the dialogue between the characters is the primary action of the film. The conversations are shot largely indoors by cinematographer Sven Nykvist, to compelling but understated visual effect. A heavy burden falls on the actors to make the scenes work. Pernilla August, familiar to American audiences as the mother of Anakin Skywalker in the recent Star Wars movie, plays Anna with a luminous seriousness that encapsulates emotions from boredom to anger to longing. Max von Sydow (The Seventh Seal, The Exorcist) as Jacob provides some of the film's finest moments: Jacob goes from middle age to old age to the point of death, always showing a beautiful compassion for Anna and all of humanity and reflecting the beauty that a sincerely religious man can have.

While the film takes place in Sweden during the early 1900s, it is not overtly a period piece. It could just as easily be set in America's 1950s, '60s or '70s, because the impetus for Anna's infidelity seems to be the painfully dull life she lives with her sole roles of wife and mother. It's no surprise that her lover Tomas is weak-willed and easily controlled. The excitement the affair brings Anna leaps completely from her own ideas of it. In the end, the comforts she receives from the path she takes are primarily from her own ideals and aspirations.

Private Confessions demands that the vows of marriage and faithfulness be taken seriously. The film's ideals are true and stark, and at the same time the stuff of real life. The downside of Private Confessions is that it is relentlessly unhurried. It's not the kind of movie many Americans prefer with zippy plot points or snappy chatter. The same people riveted by the Bill-and-Monica spectacle, with its fast updates and titillating reports, will likely be bored stiff with this foreign art house fare, which is a shame. Private Confessions shows, in painful detail, what results when romantic liaisons are embarked upon with little forethought.

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