4 stars (out of four)
A saraband is the name of an erotic court dance and also of a movement in a classical suite-like the piercingly lovely cello suites of Johann Sebastian Bach, a composer much admired by the great 87-year-old Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. "Saraband" is also the title of the film, made two years ago for Swedish TV, which Bergman now claims will be his last.
So, is this movie that sad event, the valedictory of a great, aging master? One wonders if he means it, hopes that he doesn't.
Because it's a marvelous work. "Saraband" is a sequel to one of the writer-director's towering masterpieces, "Scenes from a Marriage" (1973), also made for Swedish television and shown here theatrically. Like "Saraband," it's a cinematic chamber work for those two great, long-time Bergman actors Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, who in "Scenes" play the bitterly feuding couple Johan and Marianne, lashing and wounding each other through five incendiary scenes of love, hate and finally, startlingly, love once again.
"Scenes" was devastating. "Saraband" begins with a quiet monologue from Marianne and her visit she pays to Johan, now a rich recluse with whom she hasn't communicated for three decades. When they meet on the veranda of Johan's remote mountain villa, it's as if all the bitterness and past love and hate of "Scenes" had been scalded out of them, leaving only a mellow, amused affection. Past desire, the old combatants can now be decent to each other.
But, as we know so well from Bergman, others can't. Gradually the focus shifts, and Marianne and Johan become witnesses to another impassioned duet and duel, between Johan's pudgy-faced failure of a son, Henrik (Borje Ahlstedt), and Henrik's beautiful daughter, Karin (Julia Dufvenius).
Father and daughter, who live together, are both classical cellists and, by now, their teacher-pupil relationship has corroded their family life. Henrik wishes Karin to be his special student-partner and a virtuoso; he wishes also to re-create in her the image of Anna, his dead wife. Karin wants, increasingly, to be free-and Johan wishes her freedom also, though mostly it seems, to spite his son, whom he despises.
Marianne, watching and occasionally addressing us directly, becomes a mysterious witness to all this, a bit like Ullmann's mute actress Elisabeth Vogler in 1965's "Persona": luminous, sensitive, apart.
All this might recall the old critical cliches about Bergman: the presumed brooding Nordic fatalist who authored those dark, excruciating (and great) films "The Seventh Seal," "Through a Glass Darkly," "Winter Light," "Hour of the Wolf," "Shame" and "Cries and Whispers." But those cliches were never fair. The anguish of Bergman's life-view was always balanced by the beauty of his art.
"Saraband" itself is arranged a bit like a classical piece of music, composed of 10 scenes, each of which contains only two players. And though, confounding our expectations, Ullmann and Josephson here cede more time to Ahlstedt and Dufvenius, that doesn't mean the acting genius of the former aren't on display-but simply that, past 60 and 80, their characters are mercifully free of the demons of sex, rage, hurt and jealousy that once howled beneath their skins and now inhabit Henrik.
Ullmann's famous gaze captures us as much as ever; Josephson's trademark sarcasm is withering. Dufvenius, a newcomer, radiates that fresh, vulnerable femininity Bergman always loves on screen. And Ahlstedt-the actor who four times, beginning in 1983's "Fanny and Alexander," has played Bergman's dissolute "Uncle Carl"-moves more to center stage. Here, as when he plays Carl (most recently in the 1997 Bergman-directed "In the Presence of a Clown"), he gives us a potent image of wayward, self-indulgent humanity: a fleshy man with a sad baby-face rotting before our eyes.Bergman, one of the greatest directors of actors in the history of the cinema, retains that power to the last. The performances carry us away.
Seeing "Saraband" for the first time two years ago, though, I was somewhat disappointed. Bergman's prime, peerless collaborator, cinematographer Sven Nykvist-who worked for him in 1953's "The Naked Night" and then constantly from 1960's "The Virgin Spring" through 1984's "After the Rehearsal"-has been incapacitated by illness. The three camera operators and lighting director here are nowhere near Nykvist in ability; the colors seem more washed out and pale. The production also seems hampered by a low budget: set-bound with, at one point, still photographs used for landscapes.
But on a second viewing, when the actors and script take over, I realized that, though "Saraband" would have been greater with Nykvist, it's still a masterpiece without him.
"Saraband" may well be his farewell film, but we shouldn't watch it in any spirit of funereal reverence and respect. This is another emotionally intense, expertly crafted Bergman drama: movingly written, beautifully acted and austerely shot. If it's not an actual masterpiece, it's at least the next best thing, a fully characteristic, fully alive work by a master of his art. Bergman misses Nykvist here, but who wouldn't? What remain intact are the filmmaker's unbreakable heart, lyrical soul and sublime art. So why should we say goodbye? Instead: Bravo. Encore.
Directed and written by Ingmar Bergman; photographed by Raymond Wemmenlov, Sofi Stridh, P.O. Lantto; edited by Sylvia Ingemarsson; set design by Goran Wassberg; music by J.S. Bach, Anton Bruckner; produced by Pia Ehrnvall. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday at Landmark's Renaissance Place Cinema. In Swedish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1:47. MPAA rating: R (for brief nudity, language and a violent image).
Johan - Erland Josephson
Marianne - Liv Ullmann
Henrik - Borje Ahlstedt
Karin - Julia Dufvenius
Martha - Gunnel Fred