There's a lot going on in this movie, maybe too much. Andreas (Max Von Sydow), running away from some obscure disgrace, has come to live in a mildly dilapidated farmhouse on a small island. Bergman is working in color in this movie, and cinematographer Sven Nykvist is up to the challenge. He paints with an end of winter palette, the browns of wet, muddy ground, the gray of soupy overcast, the weak blue of late winter skies, the grey/white of dirty snow. Andreas moves through this bleak landscape with a look of stolid suffering on his face.
His solitude is broken by a woman who comes to his door and asks to use the phone. This woman, Anna, (Liv Ullman) makes her call and leaves, but forgets her purse. Curious, Andreas peeks into the purse and reads a letter from a man, obviously a lover, saying that he can't continue their relationship. Andreas returns the purse to the house where Anna is staying and gets invited in to dinner with Anna and the couple who live there, Eva and Elis (Bergman regulars Bibi Andersson and Erland Josephson). We learn that Anna's been in a bad car accident, one in which her husband and son were killed.
In an unusual move for him, Bergman films the dinner scene as pure improvisation, allowing each of the actors a few glasses of wine and a few minutes of dinner table philosophizing. He also pulls us out of the film on four separate occasions to have each of the four main actors analyze the characters they're playing. Since he typically kept tight control of the lines his actors spoke, this openness suggests that Bergman is asking the cast to help him find the heart of this movie.
Andreas has a brief affair with Eva, but both of them seem to realize there's no center to it. Then, abruptly, we learn that Andreas and Anna have moved in together. Anna's passion is for honesty. She doesn't want anything to do with evasion or deception. But in Andreas she's tied in to a man with a hazy past and no real desire to lay his emotional cards on the table. After they've lived together relatively peaceably, Anna reveals that it was she who was driving the day her husband and son were killed. A little while later, Andreas tells her his soul is dead and he can't find the will or the reason to go on with her.
There's a subplot about an unknown psychopath loose on the island who murders and mutilates animals. We're never quite sure what this senseless slaughter means, other than to highlight the many ways in which those who are living wage war on life. In his soul-baring speech, Andreas compares humans to animals, sentient but silent about the suffering they endure.
By the movie's end, Andreas discovers that Anna's passion for honesty is a way of masking her madness, and that he is potentially her victim as well as her lover. The final shot is unforgettable. Anna has driven off, and Andreas, alone, paces back and forth on the road like a caged animal. His cage isn't physical; it's the consciousness of his condition that he can't escape. As he sinks to the muddy ground, the camera slowly zooms in, losing focus as it does so, until the image dissolves into grainy incoherence. Another of Bergman's existential antiheroes bites the dust, disintegrating before our eyes.
Many of Bergman's major preoccupations are on display in this film: the splintering of personality under stress; the emptiness of a world from which God has withdrawn; the inability of men and women to rescue one another from their self-created prisons; the porous boundaries between art and life. But the tight dramatic structure of his other major films from this period is missing here. The story has a resolution of sorts, but the bigger questions about the characters - how Anna got trapped in her peculiar mania, how Andreas got lost in a fog of emotional emptiness - stay unanswered. Eva and Elis have major roles in the first part of the film, and then disappear halfway through the story. And who killed all those sheep, cows and horses anyway, and why?
You're carried along moment to moment by the fine acting and often startling imagery. It's only when the film stops rolling and the lights come up that you wake and wonder whether Bergman himself understood what story he wants to tell. When held to the highest standard of world cinema - his own work - The Passion of Anna ranks as good but not transcendent Bergman.