By Owen Gleiberman
Updated January 15, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

It remains, to my ears, one of the most hypnotic sounds in all of cinema: the tranquil yet ripely anguished flow of Ingmar Bergman’s dialogue, a river of yearning, transcendence, and despair, all leading, inevitably, to that moment when a character’s most forbidden feelings burst to the surface — the repression of a lifetime made clean. As Bergman has aged (he is now 80), he has only purified his gift, stripping off the flourishes, the thorny metaphysics, so that his hyperrealist dream plays now seem to lay bare the secrets of personality itself.

Private Confessions, written by Bergman and directed by his legendary former lead actress and lover, Liv Ullmann, continues his intimate and revelatory exploration of the formative years of his parents’ marriage. Set mostly in 1925, and rendered as a series of heightened confessional exchanges, the movie tells the story of Anna Bergman’s early adulterous affair, a deceptively typical, turning-point incident that, in its scalding late-Victorian mesh of sin, guilt, and hypocrisy, feels like nothing less than the template for Bergman’s lifelong obsessions with love and faith.

Once again, Anna and her clergyman husband, Henrik, are played by Pernilla August and Samuel Froler, who first lived inside these roles in the marvelous Bergman-scripted epic The Best Intentions (1992). As Anna reveals her affair, first to her kindly theologian ”uncle” (Max von Sydow), and then, on his advice, to the polite, passive-aggressive Henrik, who forces her to describe the details of her lovemaking, we see the hidden agony of a troubled marriage in nearly unbearable close-up. Bergman is really showing us the birth of a world in which people are entrapped by lies, but where the truth is just another trap; they’re finally imprisoned in themselves. Yet we also witness the genesis of Bergman the filmmaker — this pastor’s son who took the cathartic torment of religious confession and turned it into an art form. A-

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