Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 27, 2005 7:22 pm 
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A quiet finale, molto adagio

(San Francisco Film Festival showing, March 30, 2005)

Ingmar Bergman is back for one more "last" film. There's a lot of talk about how Bergman's vision is still "bleak" and how depressing Saraband is, but a lot of that is due to the heavy burden of preconceptions any long-time Bergman fan brings to it. There are reasons for finding sunshine here. At the same time, there isn't the anguished power of Bergman's best work. This film made for TV like Scenes from a Marriage is related to that longer piece through the presence of Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson (now 65 and 81) as a couple. It's even closer to Faithless, the film Ullmann directed from a screenplay by Bergman in 2000. Now the two actors are Marianne and Johan, long-divorced spouses. She comes to visit him after 30 years of not seeing each other, and as she stays on for some weeks, his son and granddaughter, who live nearby, come into the picture with their problems.

Ultimately the center of Saraband is the granddaughter, a young woman with strong musical talent struggling to leave the nest. The title refers to one of the most haunting, simple, and sad segments of Bach's solo cello suites. The young lady who plays it is Karin (Julia Dufvenius), who's become a cellist like her father, Johan's despised son Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt). Henrik is tormented with sorrow over the loss of his wife Anna and the conflict over Karin's leaving is heightened by his need to cling to her in the absence of Anna.

The old folks are pretty spry and have no major health problems. Ullmann's still pretty and her face isn't so lost and anguished as it used to be. Marianne is still active as a lawyer. Josephson's character is a full-time jerk, but he's spry, mentally alive, and rich. He has moved out to a country place with fantastic views and lives in an old house right out of World of Interiors. The whole film has a soft color scheme and the shots are simple but glow. The weather is warm and sunny, and Marianne and Johan sit together out on the patio when she arrives and are soon holding hands and kissing. He soon unleashes a lot of sourness, but she stays on for a month or so. One isn't sure quite how she spends all this time though Henrik and Karin come back and forth for visits and we see them together at home in some scenes.

Bergman returns to his strong Strindbergian theatrical roots in Saraband, which is like stage chamber music, highly organized into named and numbered segments and with two people at a time onscreen, Marianne occasionally addressing the camera in soliloquies. Like the Ullmann/Bergman collaboration Faithless, Saraband's has a lot of speeches ruminating over the past. They're devastatingly honest perhaps, but implausibly explanatory.

Though the panoramic view is lovely, we see it only briefly. The chamber music theme is borne out by the chambered settings. Only one lovely sequence is shot in a small country church blessed with a fine eighteenth-century organ on which Henrik plays Bach. This is one of the few places where the film opens up and allows music and facial expressions to speak rather than expository dialogue. A striking, and strange scene shows that Henrik and Karin now sleep in the same bed. The way the film begins and ends with Marianne sitting at a table strewn with large photos and everyone has the same one of Anna conveys a sense of people leafing back through their past. It's thanks to Karin that Saraband has a positive, hopeful thrust, and the strong, radient Dufvenius brings light and energy into the picture.

Unfortunately there are no real surprises, and this final work is not cinematic like Bergman's earlier classics. One of the weaknesses is that though Karin weeps and vents, only her father Henrik seems really in torment and awakens sympathy and sadness in the audience. However sad and concerned with twilight and death critics may find the film to be, most of the characters come out relatively unscathed. We aren't devastated either, and all the angst washes over us without leaving a deep impression. This is a mature work by a great director and it is a fine film in its way, but it doesn't seem truly profound. Unfortunately like the late work of Bergman's great admirer Woody Allen it leaves an immediate good impression and then is quickly forgotten. 8/10

(Shown at the historic Castro Theater in San Francisco.)

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