Friday, July 08, 2005

Saraband - Movie Review


Way back in 1983, the legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman announced his retirement from feature films with his brilliantly evocative “Fanny & Alexander.” The film was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Director for the maestro of such classic films as: “Smiles of a Summer Night”, “Persona”, “Wild Strawberries”, “The Virgin Spring”, “The Seventh Seal”, “Cries & Whispers”, “Shame”, “Face to Face” and “Autumn Sonata.”

Turns out, he lied. Like most men. He's back. And with the arrival of his latest and quite possibly his very last film, “Saraband” we are overjoyed to welcome back this lion of filmmaking. “Saraband” is that rare film. A sequel that not only compliments perfectly, but may actually surpass the original. The original was titled “Scenes From a Marriage” and was produced way back in 1973. It featured Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson as a couple whose disintegrating marriage provided the intense fodder for the flick. It was a masterpiece, and is thankfully available on a deluxe DVD from our favorite video company – Criterion. Go rent it now!!! And you’ll want to, as we did (Okay, we forked over the dough and bought it outright – so sue us!) since it is the perfect entry point for his latest masterpiece.

Saraband” picks up thirty some years after the events of “Scenes From a Marriage” with Marianne visiting her former husband Johan who lives in the Swedish countryside. She, like us is not aware of what she should expect upon arrival – she merely senses a desperate and complete need to see her former mate one last time. Upon her actual arrival, she is confronted with the disintegrating shell of a man who was once her lover. He may retain his intellect and panache, but suffers from the normal ailments befalling a man of his advanced age. He also suffers from a complete and vicious estrangement from his son, Henrik who is dealing with his own demons, attempting to mentor his talented musician daughter while both are still reeling from the death of Henrik’s wife.

What occurs in the two hours it takes to unfold the drama of “Saraband” is the very stuff of grand filmmaking. Ingmar Bergman did not need to emerge from his cinematic retirement, his legend remained intact. But perhaps like similar giants of the cinema, John Huston and Akira Kurosawa come to mind, if this is indeed his final flick – he is going out in enviable style. The ferocious confrontations, the dark secrets festering within Henrik’s soul, the desperate bid for freedom by the daughter Karin are all given such an eloquent and emotionally honest setting to play out – that the mind reels.

Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson share their history with Bergman and with each other so effortlessly and grandly, it is truly like watching a master class in screen acting. The great thing about great actors as they enter their final season is their magical ability to bring forth emotional truths on the turn of a dime. There are no grand theatrics or hysterical scenes – merely quietly devastating scenes of raw emotion to be told. Watch the way Liv Ullmann quietly reenters her former husband’s life and becomes a sort of care giver, nursemaid, and confidante to Henrik’s daughter Karin. She understands she has no place as the mother figure, but her love for Johan compels her to linger in their lives long enough to attempt the near impossible – a potential reconciliation between father and son. Erland Josephson is simply brilliant as the old bear of a man who adamantly refuses to accept the blame for his sons faltering economic and emotional life.

Börje Ahlstedt as the failed musician Henrik treads a fine line between the pitiable and the pitiful. And as his daughter Karin, young Julia Dufvenius benefits greatly from playing her scenes amongst the elder screen giants. She matches them in intensity and honesty, and is a joy to watch. The scenes between father and daughter play out literally and viscerally as musical duets.

We are not sure how this film would play on its own. We truly recommend you watch it in tandem with “Scenes From a Marriage.” Like similarly decades scattered sequels: “The Hustler” and “The Color of Money”, “A Man and a Woman” and “A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later”, and “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” – by using the same characters as anchors in their screenplays – the filmmakers emulate time’s passage without needing to fill in all the specifics. It lends a wonderful weight to the reality of the proceedings, and pays off gloriously in “Saraband.”

While this film will surely be limited to Art Houses nationwide, we strongly encourage you to drop whatever you are doing, go rent “Scenes From a Marriage” and then immediately run to your local theatre to see one of the best films of this or any year. Skål! Bless you all!

(End note: For those of you who must know – “A saraband was an erotic dance for two that was very popular at royal courts in the 17th and 18th centuries. But it was prohibited in Spain as being indecent.” Funny, the Spanish labeling something indecent. Go figure.)

Written & Directed by Ingmar Bergman

Liv Ullmann as Marianne
Erland Josephson as Johan
Börje Ahlstedt as Henrik
Julia Dufvenius as Karin
Gunnel Fred as Martha

Cinematography by Stefan Eriksson, Jesper Holmström, Per-Olof Lantto, Sofi Stridh, and Raymond Wemmenlöv
Film Editing by Sylvia Ingemarsson
Costume Design by Inger Pehrsson
Production Design by Göran Wassberg