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SARABAND (R) (2003)

Sony Pictures Classics

Official Site

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Written by: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, Börje Ahlstedt, Julia Dufvenius, Gunnel Fred


Susan Sontag, talking about Ingmar Bergman in 1975:

“Bergman is one of those oppressively memorable geniuses of the artistic dead end, who go very far with a limited material—refining it when they are inspired, repeating it and parodying themselves when they aren’t.”

I think this is true. Certainly no one can deny that Bergman has gone far—Roger Ebert and Steven Spielberg call him the “greatest living director.” His films helped establish the validity of the seventh art. And yet his films seem limited by his own morbid view of human nature. (This is after all a man who has confessed that he can’t watch his own films because they depress him.)

Though his scenarios and narrative strategies are brilliantly varied, they always deal with (and are perhaps constricted by) the same themes of mortality, the impossibility of human communication, and the emotional damage that people can do to one another.

Saraband, Bergman’s latest and purportedly last film is a modest affair in terms of scale and scope. The film is a sequel to his 1973 film Scenes From A Marriage, both of which were produced for television. The film is framed by a prologue and epilogue from Marianne (Ullman), who brings us up to date on what has happened between her and Johan (Josephson) since the last film. She tells that she has impulsively decided to visit Johan, after many years apart, for reasons she can’t quite explain. Upon her visit she discovers a family in crises.

Johan has been playing host to eldest son Henrik (Ahlstedt) and his daughter Karin (Dufvenius) at a house on his property. Henrik is still grief-stricken over the loss of his wife two years prior and has channeled all of his energy into his daughter’s musical career. Karin is overwhelmed by the commitment, yet afraid to disappoint her father. Johan and son share a destructive relationship: Estranged from his father as a boy, Henrik has grown up to hate him and openly pines for his death. Johan’s only concern seems to be for his granddaughter, whom he would like to see leave the hermetic world her father has created for her.

Marianne’s role in this family drama is that of confessor, she gathers what exposition Bergman cares to share with his audience. As in many of his other films Bergman insinuates certain possibilities and leaves others only partially visible, never feeling the need to entirely explicate all the details of his drama. The ending is tragic and so abrupt that we can only imagine its consequences.

Shot on a minimal budget, and made without the aid of Bergman’s legendary collaborator cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Saraband lacks the exquisite beauty of most Bergman films, nor does it have the intimate documentary feel of Scenes From A Marriage. Saraband is grounded in the theater, the art form Bergman has dedicated the last 20 years of his life to. As a final statement from one of the greats, Saraband can’t help seeming anti-climatic. Though keenly (even ruthlessly) observed, and containing a few beautifully filmed sequences (such as the scene where Marianne and Johan share a bed), Saraband has the feel of an addendum, perhaps worth seeing for completists, but certainly not comparable with Bergman’s best.

—Edward Rholes

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