At age 87, Bergman returns with “Saraband”, which was shot on digital video for Swedish television in 2003 and is now receiving theatrical release in the U.S. It’s a sequel to 1973’s “Scenes From a Marriage”, which if I’m not mistaken is a favorite of certain habitués of this site. Bergman was the first director with whom I fell in love when I began to study film back around ’90. He showed me what film could be at its very highest level, awakening in me a hunger for complexity, intensity and intelligence. From him I learned that at its best, film must be relentlessly honest. His work represented a good faith effort to grapple with truths about the human condition and its sorrows and joys, always with a bittersweet cognizance of our mortality. Onward in my studies, I moved on to romances with other directors. Still, one doesn’t forget one’s first love. To this day, of all the masters it is Bergman’s work that I find most deeply satisfying.
It’s been probably 14 or so years since I saw “Scenes” and actually I don’t think I’ve ever seen the complete work (it was originally a five hour series for Swedish television and was then edited into a feature of nearly three hours; I saw the feature, if I recall correctly). However, I still remember it as a touchstone experience for one just awakening to film’s potential. You’ll of course recall that “Scenes” chronicled the tumultuous marriage of Marianne (Liv Ullman) and the older Johan (Erland Josephson).
As “Saraband” opens, Marianne, now in her mid-60s, is planning to visit Johan, now in his mid-80s, at his country home. They haven’t been face-to-face since they divorced in the early 1970s at the end of “Scenes”. Johan’s son Henrik, who is nearly Marianne’s age, lives down the way with his daughter Karin, a gifted young cellist. Marianne finds all three still grieving the death a few years back of Anna, beloved wife to Henrik and mother to Karin. The dynamic of father and son is cold and cruel, that of father and daughter deeply inappropriate.
As much as he is criticized for the emotional brutality of his films, I’ve always found Bergman’s work to be tremendously compassionate regarding our failings, and deeply cherishing of those brief, precious moments when we find shelter from the storm. Towards the end of Marianne’s visit, Johan finds that he can’t sleep. Tormented, he cries out. Perhaps in the night he is most acutely aware of the black bird drawing ever more nigh his doorstep. From the guest room, Marianne calls him to her bed and, lying next to each other again after all those years, they find some solace from the impending final night.
Until I saw “Saraband” I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed Bergman. How good to see Liv Ullman again at 65, wise and non-judgmental as Marianne and as an actress. How good to hear once again the stark Bach chamber music over the titles, always a Bergman hallmark. His work still makes nearly everything else seem to represent a failure of nerve, as though it is content to wallow in the superficial and shallow where he would strip the matter bare to its heart.
- Aug 21, 2005