Can there possibly be too many Ingmar Bergman films in the world? Some 20 years after Fanny and Alexander, his "retirement" film as a director, and almost half a century after his masterpiece The Seventh Seal, Bergman has now written and directed Saraband, a drama that moves with the stately rhythm of the dance for which it's named.
Set among academics and musicians, a rarified and slightly distancing milieu, Saraband revolves around Marianne (Liv Ullmann), a 63-year-old lawyer. In the film's Prologue -- the film has 10 chapters, or movements, with brief titles of exposition opening each one -- Marianne looks over some old photographs and decides to visit her ex-husband, the octogenarian Johan (Erland Josephson). They haven't seen each other in 32 years, and in that time, Johan inherited a fortune from his aunt, an opera singer, and retired to the country.
Their reunion is lovely, a meeting of old friends, and soon they're joined by Karin, Johan's grown granddaughter by Henrik, the son of his first marriage. Karin cries within two minutes of meeting Marianne, and then they get drunk together. She's a cellist under the tutelage of the depressed and widowed Henrik, who's desperately attached to her, and whom we see in scenes that break away from Marianne's point of view.
Marianne often narrates her portion of the story directly to the camera, a technique that turns out to be far more theatrical than documentary. In fact, Saraband is virtually filmed theater, and no wonder: Since retiring from film, Bergman has devoted his creative work largely to the stage. There's surprisingly little visual style in Saraband, and the action consists almost exclusively of actors moving about the frame, if they move at all, with the camera sometimes following them or permitting us an intimate closeup as only Bergman can.
And yet, Saraband feels no more static than any of Bergman's films, which always have a palpable literary quality. Like all of his mature cinema, and particularly Autumn Sonata, Saraband is amber-toned and often quite serene. The dialogue is intelligent, introspective and candid, exploring its central theme of co-dependence, independence and estrangement, especially between parents and their children. Saraband also reunites two titanic thespians of Bergmanic cinema and guides them to a concise climax that's touching, understated and -- in the director's most indulgent metaphor -- both emotionally and literally naked.
When Johan tells Marianne, "First people are together, then they part ways, and finally there's silence," he says it with the lucid understanding of a man at the end of his life. Forty years ago, he might have howled this line in the throes of existential agony, or with a shard of glass in hand. After Karin unburdens herself to Marianne, then tells her that she once cried until she felt empty of tears, Bergman submits what may be the perfect aperçu for his cinema. Who can say, after Saraband, whether he's finally dry. In Swedish, with subtitles. To be screened by projected video.