There was something special about the first color films directed by the Europeans who came of age during the black and white era. Antonioni’s “Red Desert,” Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits,” Bresson’s “Une Femme Douce,” Renoir’s “The River,” Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451,” and ” Godard’s “A Woman is a Woman” were among the most highly anticipated, with “Red Desert” and “Juliet of the Spirits” receiving particular acclaim for their breakthrough uses of color.
“Passion of Anna” was Ingmar Bergman’s second color film. After 1964’s “All These Women,” he returned to black and white for three films and a television drama before attempting to work with color again. Compared to the flashier work of his contemporaries, Bergman’s use of color seemed rather drab and uninspired. Looking back on it today, that was clearly not the case. One needs only to imagine the film in black and white to appreciate how vital the color is to its tonal scheme.
The rich, autumnal colors of the first scenes introduce us to a Bergman we might never have known through black and white. The color gives even the wet earth a sensuality that, in previous films, was found in his characters but not his landscapes. Here, it is the natural world that is alive and the people who are dead.
The Passion of the title is not just Anna’s, but the other three characters’ as well. Both she and Eva have lost children and are now childless. Anna, who has killed her child and husband in a car accident, clings to the hypocrisy of an idealized marriage, while the audience is repeatedly reminded, via a letter to her from her husband, that their marriage was headed for an eruption of psychological and physical violence.
Eva is just a small part of her husband Elis’ general weariness, She has no identity of her own an her sense of meaninglessness makes afraid she will disappear. Even her beauty is pathetic, as it is only a shell to enclose her non-existence. Her husband, currently building a cultural center for the uncultured people of Milan, is a cynic who despises the use to which he has put his architectural talents. Andreas is even worse off, as he doesn’t seem to have any skills, and is unable to feel anything, even cynicism, toward humanity. Anna, on the other hand, suffers from an exaggerated empathy, experiencing horrifying television images as if they were direct reality.
In an early scene, the two couples have dinner and both women, when asked a direct question, react like trapped animals, suggesting that the simplest question demands an answer, the truth of which threatens to destroy the façade of polite existence.
The monochromatic interiors contrast with the natural colors of the outside world. Even the winter scenes, with their heavy blacks and whites, make the depressing shades of brown more bleak than if the movie altogether lacked color. The introduction of color into a winter scene, such as the red blood of the mutilated sheep, emphasizes the brutal effect of humanity upon the natural world.
In Anna’s central monolog, in which an idyllic recollection of her marriage ends in a graphic description of the accident, is filmed in a single take close-up of Live Ulmann’s face, making full use of color as her blue-grey eyes pierce through the shades of oranges that glow from underneath her skin. That is as close as Bergman comes, in this film, to humanism, and it is the humanity of a mortician, using his tools to make the corpse as beautiful as possible.