WATCHING "PRIVATE Confessions," I was back in Ingmar Bergman country again. Only this time, Bergman, the Swedish director who defined European art films for more than 40 years, was the screenwriter. And Liv Ullmann -- his leading lady in such great films as "Persona" -- was the director.
But the other -- you know -- Bergmanesque elements were there, just the same as ever. A woman's soul was being torn apart -- and she was talking about it big time. Well-dressed men were choking with throttled torment at their existential ineffectiveness. And once again, I could hear those familiar Nordic lamentations: Kval -- anguish. Lidande -- suffering. Ha daigt samvete -- to have a guilty conscience.
Yeah, life was great again.
Bergman may have retired from directing films. But as a writer, he continues to create deeply affecting, emotionally vigorous works like this one.
"Private Confessions," which takes up where Bergman's 1992 screenplay, "The Best Intentions," left off, also brings back the principal performers of the earlier movie. Pernilla August returns as the central character, Anna Bergman. Max von Sydow (who actually played her father in the first film) plays her uncle and confirmation priest, Jacob. And Samuel Froler comes back as Anna's husband, Henrik, the severe, mercurial preacher who caused much of Anna's pain in the first place.
It is not necessary to see "Intentions" to understand "Private Confessions." But a little background might help. Both films, set in the early part of the century in Sweden, are about the troubled relationship between Henrik and Anna Bergman, who were to become Ingmar Bergman's parents.
In "The Best Intentions," which was directed by Bille August and set between 1909 and 1918, we see their courtship and troubled marriage. Henrik is a stern, coldhearted preacher who takes his socialite, bourgeois wife to the rigid north to run a small parish. The couple's life remains emotionally tumultuous, as two distinct individuals try futilely to change one another.
In "Private Confessions," set in the 1920s and 1930s, screenwriter Bergman structures the story into five "conversations," which are not in complete chronological order. There's good reason for that, which becomes devastatingly apparent upon watching the movie.
The narrative starts on a Sunday afternoon in July 1925, with Anna meeting Jacob, her priest, to make a painful confession. She has been unfaithful to Henrik. But she does not regret having slept with Tomas (Thomas Hanzon), a married man whom Henrik knows. She feels justified for seeking respite from Henrik's insensitive ways. But she seeks some kind of understanding and counsel from Jacob.
If Anna has committed an unpardonable sin, there is no one who holds her more to account than herself. For every piece of conventional advice offered by Jacob -- and true to his calling, he advises her to tell everything to Henrik -- Anna has a far more thoughtful and complex perspective.
But the movie does not extol her point of view, it simply watches strategically, knowing there is much more to come. Anna's story continues through five extended conversations, encounters with Henrik and Tomas among them. (There is also another significant meeting with Jacob 10 years later.) And little by little, screenwriter Bergman peels away the layers of this story, until a completely different view of Anna emerges; different, at least, from the Anna we met at the beginning.
If there is a clue to the stratagem, it surely comes from Jacob's observation: "We always receive what we pray for, but not in the way we imagined."
"Private Confessions" is the kind of writing that rarely appears in current moviemaking. August expands glowingly upon the great performance she gave in "Intentions." And von Sydow, especially in the later sections of this movie, proves once again why he is one of the masters.
"Private Confessions," which reprises the frankness and profundity of Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage," takes you to a past of starched collars and pursed lips to reveal startling, timely things about men, women and the eternal quest for understanding, connection and redemption. If you value films that say something deeper than "Demi Moore discovers that the real road to glory means a finely tuned body," run, don't walk to the American Film Institute. I guarantee you'll suffer with exquisite pleasure.
PRIVATE CONFESSIONS (Unrated, 127 minutes) -- Contains nudity, sexual situations and sustained emotional intensity. At the American Film Institute through Aug. 22.