Last dance? The nearness of love and hate occupies Bergman in "Saraband."

By KENNETH TURAN, Times Staff Writer
Published: July 8, 2005

Ingmar Bergman is back. With a vengeance. Saraband is not what might be expected from a venerable director with six decades of experience who will turn 87 next week. But Bergman has never been an ordinary filmmaker, and what he's given us is no genial last hurrah but rather an intensely dramatic, at times lacerating examination of life's conundrums that is exhilarating in its fearlessness and its command.

Named after a 17th century court dance, Saraband is the Swedish writer-director's first serious look at family relationships since 1983's "Fanny and Alexander." Characterized by costar Liv Ullmann as the most personal film Bergman has ever made, it is also proof that he still has both the passion for exploring psychological intricacies and the gifts to make that passion indelible.

Fanny and Alexander was announced as the director's last film (as has this one). But he's since done projects for Swedish television (where Saraband originated) and written scripts for other directors. Trying to make sense of life is not just a profession or even a calling, it's who Bergman is at the core of his being.

That unwavering attitude means that Bergman's scripts are never done full justice when other, less involved directors bring them to the screen. So we are especially fortunate that this film, with its unblinking examination of the stifling nature of love as well as love's unnerving proximity to hate, was one Bergman felt strongly enough about to handle himself.

Because two of its four characters (Erland Josephson's Johan and Ullmann's Marianne) appeared as estranged husband and wife in 1973's Scenes From a Marriage, Saraband is being inaccurately talked about as a kind of sequel. In fact, Bergman seems to have used these characters simply because he was familiar with them; there's nothing you need to know about their history that the present film doesn't immediately tell you.

Saraband is broken up into a prologue and nine chapters, almost all of them dialogues between two of the film's characters (the source, presumably, of the dance title). The prologue is an exception, as Marianne faces the camera and casually catches us up on what's happened with her and Johan over the decades. Besides filling us in on events like Johan's retirement with inherited money, the monologue combines with Ullmann's empathetic qualities to establish a kind of complicity between the audience and the characters. More or less on a whim, Marianne has decided to visit Johan after an absence of 32 years. She finds him creaky physically, wary of intimacy ("Are you going to start hugging?" he asks fearfully) and worried that he's lived "a meaningless, idiotic life."

One of the unexpected aspects of Saraband is that it is not primarily about this waning relationship. Living on a cabin on Johan's property is Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt), his 61-year-old son from a previous marriage, and Karin (Julia Dufvenius), Henrik's 19-year-old daughter. Karin, a gifted cellist, is getting instruction from her musically involved father while both are trying to recover from the recent death of the family's wife and mother.

Bergman has an acknowledged gift for savage personal relationships, in which grudges are far from forgotten and people can't help but eviscerate those they are close to. Johan's lifelong willingness to be dismissive of his son has warped Henrik's personality. Showing us that dynamic playing out in all of the film's interactions is the essence of Saraband's intentions.

As a result, the most memorable acting in the film comes from Ahlstedt, known to Bergman watchers as Uncle Carl in Fanny and Alexander and other films. His is the most complex role, and we only gradually come to see what having a father like Johan has done to his soul, and to Johan's.

The most remarkable thing about Saraband is that Bergman makes this kind of intensely emotional filmmaking look simple. The ease with which the director calls forth the most deep-seated and complex emotions from his actors is helped by their skill and the decades they've worked with him, but it's nevertheless exceptional.

Bergman shot Saraband on digital video without a designated cinematographer, and though that format's user-friendliness made this film possible, it's difficult to watch without lamenting the absence of the texture and richness that shooting on old-fashioned film provides.

Seeing Saraband also reminds us how much we're missing by not having pictures like this as part of our regular moviegoing menu. Bergman's style of filmmaking seems to come not from the last century but rather another universe altogether, one that we've abandoned, to our loss.

In some ways sadder than anything else are the Swedish words that close Saraband: "Manus och regi Ingmar Bergman" (written and directed by Ingmar Bergman). They are words we're not likely to see on a new release ever again, and having them end this quite marvelous film makes us realize yet again how much the world of cinema will miss him once he's gone.

MPAA rating: R for brief nudity, language and a violent image

A Sony Pictures Classic release. Writer-director Ingmar Bergman. Executive producer Pia Ehrnvall. Cinematographers Raymond Wemmelöv, Sofi Stridh, P.O. Lantto. Editor Sylvia Ingemarsson. Costume design Inger Elvira Pehrson. Set designer Göran Wassberg. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.