A 'retired' Ingmar Bergman brings 'After the Rehearsal' to bitter life

Just last year, Ingmar Bergman announced that his moviemaking days were over. The family epic ''Fanny and Alexander'' summed up his career, he felt, and he was quitting while ahead. From now on he would devote himself to the stage and television.

But there's a thin line between TV movies and movie-movies. Indeed, such earlier Bergman films as ''Scenes From a Marriage'' and ''The Ritual'' - seen in theaters by American viewers - were originally made for the home screen. As long as he stays active in TV, his filmmaking career will be very much alive.

That's why a new picture by the ''retired'' Bergman has already been released. To be sure, ''After the Rehearsal'' is a modest effort, built more on a flood of words than a flow of images. Shot for TV with 16-mm equipment, its visual approach reflects its small-screen origins. It lasts just 72 minutes, moreover, and features only three performers in speaking roles. But its themes are as serious as those of ''Fanny and Alexander,'' which I find an imposing but very uneven work.

The main character of ''After the Rehearsal'' is Henrik Vogler, a theater director. Not a young man, he still cares about his art but is no longer dazzled by its mystique or unduly impressed with his own talent.

Hanging around the stage after a day's work, he is visited by two actresses. One is a bright newcomer with a promising future, now working on a Strindberg role for him. The other is a captious older woman - once a capable performer, but worn out and preoccupied with her failing personal life. The only other figures on-screen are a wordless boy and girl who represent Vogler and the young actress as children.

Having brought his three characters together, Bergman puts them - and himself , and us - through the kind of windy, merciless confrontation that characterizes so many scenes in his movies. The conversation ranges from small talk and petty lies to heartfelt pleas and hair-raising revelations. Even the most decisive turn of event may circle back and reverse itself, making a major impact each time: Vogler is distressed at young Anna's pregnancy, which will limit her commitment to the stage, and distressed again at her abortion, which means she values that commitment too much. Circles within circles, all fogged by the mists of emotion and the competing claims of empathy, involvement, and self-interest.

Given the film's minimal visual style - relying mostly on alienating closeups - and the furiously concentrated dialogue, it's impressive how much psychological territory Bergman covers here. Perhaps the drama's density grows from an autobiographical element. The protagonist is a director, after all, and in a written ''introduction'' to the movie, Bergman's friend and colleague Jorn Donner notes ''many ostensible similarities'' between Bergman and Vogler, who is both ''cynical and tender hearted'' and feels that ''death is nibbling him.''

But the clouds of feeling in ''After the Rehearsal'' need no off-screen references to justify them. All they need is the bitter life Bergman's dialogue gives them, and the production support provided by his capable collaborators. Vogler and the aging Rakel are played respectively by Erland Josephson and Ingrid Thulin, both longtime Bergman associates; and Lena Olin is nearly perfect as young Anna. Sven Nykvist was the cinematographer, his rapport with the filmmaker as tight as ever. The movie's rating for American theaters is R, reflecting some vulgar language as well as the generally harrowing subject matter.

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