- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 8, 2005

The American art-house circuit has finally caught up with “Saraband,” which marked the return of venerable spellbinder and agony-monger Ingmar Bergman from premature retirement as a director of theatrical films. One would prefer not to think of this flawed film as the Swedish master’s last cinematic will and testament.

During the 1990s, Mr. Bergman, who turned 87 in July, wrote a trio of remarkable screenplays that were impressively realized by other directors: Bille August was entrusted with “The Best Intentions,” which originated as a prestige miniseries; Mr. Bergman’s own son Daniel inherited “Sunday’s Children”; and his former consort and leading lady Liv Ullmann faithfully rendered “Faithless.”

Miss Ullmann is also a principal in “Saraband,” a chamber drama for a quartet of actors that was shot in a high-definition digital format. It revisits the leading characters from Mr. Bergman’s vintage TV hit, the 1973 miniseries “Scenes From a Marriage,” distilled into a three-hour feature a year later.

Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann return as the former mismates called Johan and Marianne. Divorced in the course of “Scenes,” they nevertheless found it feasible to share certain confidences, along with a carnal fling, after splitting up and remarrying. Three decades later, an aging Marianne impulsively decides to visit an elderly Johan. Both have discarded their follow-up mates somewhere along the way.

Addressing the audience directly during the prologue, busily expository Marianne reveals that the couple has been out of touch for a long time. One gathers that parenthood hasn’t been much of a consolation: A daughter named Sara, never depicted, has moved to Australia; the other, Martha, is reserved for a superfluous sucker punch at the fadeout.

Johan, whose egotism has not mellowed with age, inherited a fortune between movies. He lives in an ancestral home in the countryside.

“Saraband” borrows Johan and Marianne, now aged 86 and 63, respectively, to set the scene for an actively tormented father-daughter relationship, observed as it reaches a nightmarish breaking point. Enter Boerje Ahlstedt as Henrik and Julia Dufvenius as Karin. Almost the same age as Marianne, Henrik is Johan’s son by an earlier failed marriage. A classical cellist, he has spawned a child who excels on the same instrument.

Henrik and Karin, about 19, reside in a cottage on Johan’s property and spend their days in a claustrophobic artistic and emotional intimacy that may have taken a literally incestuous turn. Anyway, Mr. Bergman knows it’s effectively creepy to depict them sharing the same bed. Father and daughter also share a great sorrow, the death of Henrik’s seemingly angelic wife Anna a few years earlier.

Even when you’re resisting the neurotic undertow of resentment and heartache that Mr. Bergman tries to orchestrate, there are episodes in which Mr. Ahlstedt and Miss Dufvenius sustain unnerving levels of intensity and feigned suffering. It’s interesting to learn that they were in a production of “King Lear” together.

It was probably reassuring for Mr. Bergman to have Miss Ullmann and Mr. Josephson in reserve, but as Marianne and Johan, they function as played-out bystanders much of the time. There is one semi-inspired interlude of comic relief when Johan takes refuge in Marianne’s bed, a humbling act that also triggers one of the oddest striptease duets in movie history.


TITLE: “Saraband”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity and allusions to incest)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Ingmar Berman. Lighting director Per Sundin. Set design by Goran Wassberg. Costume design by Inger Elvira Pehrson. In Swedish with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.com


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