Directed by Ingmar Bergman. 2003.

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Originally shot for television in high definition video, Ingmar Bergman's latest film, Saraband, is about the reunion of a husband and wife after thirty years of divorce and separation. Divided into ten segments plus a prologue and epilogue, the title is derived from a minuet-like dance for two people commonly performed at court during the 17th and 18th centuries. Like the dance, there are never more than two people on screen at any one time and the film is almost all conversation with bits of classical music. The film is vintage Bergman with revealing close-ups, emotionally intense dialogue, an old-fashioned style of filmmaking, and a surfeit of bitterness about the human condition.

Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson, the original screen couple from Bergman's 1973 film Scenes of a Marriage, reunite in his summer home for their first face to face contact since their breakup. Johan has become very wealthy as a result of an inheritance. Marianne is a lawyer and they have two daughters from their failed marriage: Sara who is married to a prominent lawyer and lives in Australia and Martha who is in a mental institution and does not recognize her mother. Johan is surprised by his ex-wife's visit but they still hold hands and try to remember the good things about the past, though Johan's interest seems to be minimal. Living nearby are Henrik (Borje Ahlstedt), Johan's son from a second marriage and his daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius), a promising young cellist. Henrik and Karin have an uncomfortably strong attachment and mutual need as a result of the recent death of Anna, Henrik's wife who was deeply loved. 

Henrik is training his daughter in the cello to prepare her for an audition at the local conservatory but has to turn to Johan for financial support who uses the occasion to humiliate him. Karin is contemplating going to Europe to work for an orchestra but is afraid of the consequences for Henrik if she leaves. Relationships between the family are strained, seemingly beyond repair and their world is filled with childish resentments and regrets. Karin resents her father for suffocating her emotionally. Marianne still resents Johan for his unfaithfulness. Henrik resents his father for -- not being a father. Johan resents Henrik for not being the son he wanted. No one can see beyond their ego to feel the needs and wants of others. The emotional pain is real but I found the end result to be facile and unconvincing.

Saraband has received high praise as a "lacerating examination of life's conundrums that is exhilarating in its fearlessness and its command", and an "affective, touching, and ultimately highly affirming picture of familial turmoil and the curative, as well as destructive, powers of love." But what I ask is this - What new insights do we gain about the human condition from witnessing a family go at each other with unbridled ruthlessness? In offering his audience the latest generation of "emotional illiterates", Bergman lets us see the clawing and fighting but hides the life-affirming reality that people are capable of transcending their limitations. 

In Saraband, there is no self- reflection, responsibility, or hint that people can change with the passage of time. His characters only seem to have been able to refine their capacity for collecting grievances. When Henrik is suffering, no one talks about him, goes to visit him, or seems in the least concerned. Is this the way Bergman after all these years sees human relationships? Is this the legacy he wants to leave us? Despite its considerable strengths, Sourband (sic) is a bitter and despairing film that left a bad taste in my mouth.


Howard Schumann
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