Screens Ars longa, vita brevis

A lifetime of cinematic masterpieces seems too little as Bergman bids farewell with Saraband

With Fanny and Alexander (1983), Ingmar Bergman bid adieu to cinema and determined to devote his remaining energies to writing and directing for the theater. Yet two decades later, the venerable filmmaker returns with Saraband, which derives its title from a baroque erotic dance form and its inspiration from the daunting, exquisite cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach that one of its characters is challenged to perform. Bergman, who occupies roughly the same position in the short history of film that Bach does in the history of music, is now 87, and it is not likely that there will be a sequel to this belated sequel, a film that revisits characters Bergman created in 1973 for Scenes from a Marriage.

Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann reprise their roles from 1973's Scenes from a Marriage for Saraband, originally produced for television in 2003.

Thirty years later, Johan (Josephson) is now 86, retired from academe, and, thanks to an inheritance, independently wealthy. Though she has not had any contact with him for 22 years, Marianne (Ullmann), his former wife, shows up suddenly at his summer house, curious and compassionate, one gorgeous early autumn day. She, like the viewer, becomes audience to a brutal family drama. Age has not mellowed Johan, who, though affectionate toward Marianne, is contemptuous of Henrik (Ahlstedt), his grownup son born to a different woman. "He's probably mummified by his own nastiness," concludes Henrik about his father, whom he humors because he needs the old man's money. But Johan sees through Henrik's fawning. "There's a healthy dose of hatred in your general mushiness," he observes.

A music teacher unhinged by the death of his wife, Anna, two years ago, Henrik is staying with his daughter Karin (Dufvenius) in a lakeside cottage owned by Johan. He is intent on preparing Karin, a gifted cellist, for audition to a leading conservatory. But she rebels against her father's pedagogical and paternal tyranny, even while reluctant to abandon him. Both sorely miss Anna, and so, in his own cantankerous way, does Johan. Marianne serves as confidante to each of these three tormented characters.

Saraband consists of 10 successive conversations bracketed by a prologue and an epilogue in which Marianne addresses the camera. With its unusually long takes and lack of external action, the film seems fundamentally "uncinematic," if cinema be defined by physical movement and rapid montage. In two crucial scenes, one character reads the entirety of a long letter to another. Though music is both an element in the plot and a stylistic device, and though talk is his instrument of dramatic revelation, Bergman includes intervals of obdurate silence. Yet, like The Silence (and The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Through a Glass Darkly, Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander, and other works that constitute Bergman's extraordinary cinematic legacy), Saraband is exquisitely attentive to the nuances and mutations of human emotion. Anyone not hopelessly addicted to raucous, cluttered amusements will revel in how Bergman pores over faces to uncover souls. Johan's description of an anxiety attack he suddenly experiences in the middle of the night might also apply to the insidious effect of Bergman's sly cinematic provocation: "It's like a gigantic, total, mental diarrhea."


Writ. & dir. Ingmar Bergman; feat. Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, Börje Ahlstedt, Julia Dufvenius (R)

Saraband could be read as the Swedish master's Tempest, the ending of his revels and farewell to his magic, especially since one character, like Prospero, eventually binds herself to other human beings by abandoning her isolate art. For all their manifest flaws, Bergman respects his characters - and his audience - enough to furnish room for ambiguity. Exactly what went on between Johan and Anna, Henrik and Karin, Johan and Marianne, is generously left to the viewer's imagination. "Can you finally explain why you suddenly showed up here?" Johan asks Marianne as autumn ends, along with the film. She cannot, we cannot, and the filmmaker will not. Sentient life is richer as he exits the stage.