The production aired on Swedish TV last Christmas in an appreciably longer version. Theatrical edition is divided into five chapters, or “conversations,” which do not unfold in chronological order.
The first, which takes place on a Sunday in July 1925, begins as an elderly priest, Jacob (Max von Sydow) meets an old acquaintance, Anna (Pernilla August), wife of young priest Henrik Bergman (Froler). Startled to be confronted with an old friend, Anna breaks down in tears and soon confesses to Jacob that she’s having an affair with a trainee priest, Tomas Egerman (Thomas Hanzon). Jacob advises her to break off the liaison and to tell Henrik the truth.
In the second conversation, later that summer, Anna tells Henrik about Tomas. He appears to take the news quite well, but the next morning his bitterness, anger and humiliation surface as he quizzes her on the most intimate details of her affair. She admits to having confessed to Jacob, and reveals she has also told her friend Maria (Kristina Adolphson), who had loaned the lovers a house in which they could meet.
Conversation three is a flashback that centers on that idyllic rendezvous. It’s clear that Anna is the prime mover in the affair (Tomas seems reluctant and nervous) and that she hasn’t always told the complete truth in her previously viewed confessions.
The fourth conversation occurs years later when Anna visits the now sickly Jacob; now there are hints of an old attraction between Jacob and Anna, which are further revealed in the fifth conversation, which occurs between the two in a 1907 flashback when Anna was 18 years old.
In his densely written screenplay, Bergman reveals, layer by layer, the secrets and lies that shaped the unhappy Anna’s life during this period of romantic yearning and frustration. Ullmann handles the rich material with simplicity and feeling, using snatches of classical music only sparingly and concentrating on the faces of her exemplary cast.
Re-inhabiting the role of Anna Bergman between the ages of 18 and 43, August offers an inner beauty and strong emotional range. The other actors offer loyal support, with Froler again notable as the withdrawn but at times volatile Henrik, and von Sydow lending his towering presence to the character of Jacob.
Nykvist’s lighting aptly enhances the moods of the film, and all other technical credits are first-rate.
In the TV version, there was a sixth conversation, between Anna and her mother, Karin, who was played by Anita Bjork.