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SARABAND

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Liv Ullman, Erland Josephson, Börje Ahlstedt, Julia Dufvenius
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Audio: Swedish 2.0 Dolby Surround
Subtitles: English, French, Portuguese
Video: Color, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Studio: Sony Pictures
Features: The Making of Saraband, trailers
Length: 112 minutes
Release Date: January 10, 2006

"First, people are together, and then they part ways and talk on the phone, and finally there's silence."

Film ****

Seldom has a nation's entire film industry been as defined by one man as Swedish cinema has been by Ingmar Bergman.  For many filmgoers, Bergman is the very personification of Swedish cinema and has been for well over a half-century.  The list of supreme masterpieces crafted by this director - The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Persona, Fanny and Alexander, Cries and Whispers, to name but a very few - is quite without peer among contemporary filmmakers.

Bergman over the years did not limit his prodigious output to the cinema, either.  He was an established stage director and later in his career also did work for Swedish television, too.  In fact, one of Bergman's greatest triumphs, 1973's Scenes from a Marriage, was created originally for Swedish television.  Approximately five hours in length, the miniseries was then re-edited for length and distributed theatrically to great international and critical acclaim.  The film garnered numerous awards, and it also served to establish leading lady Liv Ullman as one of the era's finest actresses.

Scenes from a Marriage chronicled the slow disintegration of a seemingly happy union between married couple Marianne and Johan.  Episodic in nature, the film flowed from marital bliss to anguished arguments, adultery, and eventual divorce.  Yet, the film's intimate finale offered the sort of poignant reconciliation and mutual understanding that only age and a lifetime of bittersweet experiences can offer.  The friendship between both characters endured, a testimony to the strength of an emotional union that even a traumatic break-up or personal differences could not entirely dispel.

In Saraband, Ingmar Bergman re-visits the characters of Marianne and Johan thirty years after their separation.  For many years, Marianne and Johan have had no contact with one another.  But with the passage of time and perhaps an awareness of the increasingly tenuous grasp on life in her old age, Marianne decides one day to visit her former husband.  She does not entirely understand why she does so, only that somehow she senses that Johan is calling her.

The years have been gentler for Marianne than for Johan, although neither has been without personal hardships.  Johan, now elderly and weary, is at an age when he should be carefree to contemplate his life's accomplishments in his remaining days, yet he has been confronted with a delicate family crisis involving his grown son Henrik and his nineteen-year-old granddaughter Karin.  Henrik and Karin live in a nearby country cottage, and while Karin remains dear to Johan's heart, a particularly painful animosity exists between Johan and his own son, a deep emotional scar that hinders any possible reconciliation between the men even now in the autumn of their lives.  When Marianne visits Johan at his country retreat in the waning days of the late summer, she bears witness to the fragile relationships which exist in Johan's family.

While Scenes from a Marriage focused primarily upon Marianne and Johan, Saraband has four principal characters, all of whom are afforded equal screen development time.  The first and last person we see in the film is Marianne, yet the film's focal character is arguably Johan's granddaughter Karin.  She is at a vulnerable stage in her young life, torn between devotion to her father (especially with his wife's recent death still haunting him) and a desire to develop her budding musical talents as a cellist.  Should she audition for a prestigious conservatory, knowing that to abandon her father now would be to sentence the lonely and still heart-broken man to a certain death, spiritually and emotionally?  Or, should she remain by his side, essentially sacrificing her own personal aspirations to serve as a surrogate to her mother's memories?

Saraband explores many aspects of the family dynamics - for instance, the continuing friendship between Marianne and Johan or the strained relationship between Johan and his son Henrik, as compared to the tenderness between Johan and his granddaughter.  In fact, throughout Saraband, at no point are more than two characters on-screen at the same time.  By this technique, Bergman allows the characters greater scope to develop, either through intimate one-on-one conversations, asides, or soliloquies.  As such, Saraband is essentially a character-driven film that draws significantly from Bergman's own stage and theatrical directorial experience.  Saraband is even composed as a series of small vignettes divided among ten chapters, with Marianne appearing in the prologue and epilogue sequences that bookend the encounters and developing circumstances in the film.

There is a secret fifth character in the film, one who plays a key role yet is never seen beyond old photographs.  She is Anna, Henrik's former beloved wife and Karin's mother.  The memory of Anna lingers in Henrik's waking moments and strongly influences his actions, even years after her death from cancer.  Loving vestiges of the tenderness and grace that her life brought to the family are so strongly suggested that in the aftermath of her death, Johan's family has become emotionally lost.

Anna's "presence" continues to haunt the very premises and lives of those beloved who have survived her.  While Saraband is certainly not a ghost story (aside from doors which appear to swing of their own accord), Bergman allows the "presence" of this fifth character to guide the eventual outcome of the film, particularly in how Karin resolves her emotional dilemma and how Marianne herself applies what she has learned from observing Johan's family to her own troubled daughter.

All the performances in Saraband are quite stellar, from Dufvenius's conflicted Karin to Ahlstedt's broken Henrik to Josephson's malcontented Johan to Ullman's introspective Marianne.  Saraband is also a self-contained film, powerful and life-affirming even for viewers who have not previously seen Scenes from a Marriage.

As a director, Bergman represents a true dying breed in cinema - an introspective, art-house filmmaker.  His films challenge viewers on a metaphysical and spiritual level as well as visually, and Bergman's gifts as a screenwriter would shame many a filmmaker today.  Over his career, Bergman's favorite themes have been interpersonal relationships, difficult family dynamics, and the search for a higher meaning or purpose in life (or death); not surprisingly, all of these themes are explored in Saraband, Bergman's confessed final film.

Saraband provides a fine coda to the superb Scenes from a Marriage.  However, it is merely the latest masterpiece from one of cinema's rarest and most illustrious directors.  Although Saraband arrives in the twilight of Ingmar Bergman's career, the film serves to remain us that age and long life have only enhanced, not diminished, the director's skills.  Saraband may be a small and intimate film, but its emotional impact is as profound as that of any of the director's more famous works.

Video ****

Saraband was shot on digital video and consequently, the picture is quite sharp and crystal clear.  The images maintain a richly film-like quality, with natural skin tones and alluring colors.  The bit transfer rate averages around seven Mbps.

Audio *** ½

Audio is comprised mostly of dialogue, although Bergman also samples several J. S. Bach compositions, particularly the fifth saraband from Bach's Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor.  The audio mix is not aggressive but always remains pleasant and suitably strong as required (mainly in interludes during which only music is heard).

Features **

There are previews for the ensemble film Heights (with Elizabeth Banks), the offbeat comedy Thumbsucker (with Keanu Reeves and Tilda Swinton), and The Beautiful Country, about the forgotten Vietnamese offspring of American soldiers.

The only other bonus is a fine making-of documentary (44 min.) for Saraband.  Bergman himself is prominently featured as he explains the process involved in bringing the project to fruition.  For an octogenarian, Bergman is amazingly spry, energetic, and full of fun, the generally somber nature of his films notwithstanding.  Admirers of Ingmar Bergman's films will embrace this documentary as a rare opportunity to witness the master director at work.  Glimpses of rehearsals, costume tests, scene preparations, and alternate takes can be seen.  Enjoy these images, for we may likely never see another new Ingmar Bergman film again.  

BONUS TRIVIA:  The portraits of Anna shown in Saraband were actually those of Ingmar Bergman's late wife, Ingrid Von Rosen, who herself died of cancer in 1995.

Summary:

Outstanding!  Advancing years have not affected Ingmar Bergman's ability to craft films of the utmost quality.  Saraband is yet another multi-layered Bergman masterpiece that can be enjoyed purely on its own merits or as an enlightened follow-up to Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage.  Highly recommended!

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