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Ingmar Bergman - Review of Saraband his last film

by Zettel 

Posted: 31 July 2007
Word Count: 1040
Summary: When first posted on the BBC Collective website in 2005 this review won a prize. As a tribute to a great Director.

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Saraband is like a cup of very hot, black, excellent tea on a bitter Winter’s day. Not everyone’s brew. A drink that must be sipped, taking in its satisfying heat little by little. No sweetness here, just a few hints of tenderness and compassion like single grains of sugar dissolved and almost lost in the whole. And yet, its threads of distinct but interlaced flavours, some astringent, slake the thirst and clean the palate.

Cinema reduced to its essence. Without detectable artifice, in this apparently valedictory film, Bergman turns his unflinching gaze upon not so much life, with its hopes and dreams and aspirations, but upon existence itself. And in an extraordinarily moving way – celebrates it without false hope or comforting promise. The sheer will to be, survives the hostile random events of life and the transience of personal relationships and the comfort they fleetingly provide. With non-judgmental fascinated detachment, Bergman’s camera shows us an implacable truth of the human condition, which we each find our different ways to deny.

This is a profoundly existentialist film. Our despair and failures are of our own making, as by implication, is our happiness and our occasional joy. We are defined not by what the world does to us, but by how we respond to it. The illusion of escape from this relentless personal challenge, is represented in the film by Johan’s son Henrik’s deceased wife Anna. The self-indulgence of the belief both that all was well when Anna was alive, and therefore that his present unhappiness is a consequence of her absence, is systematically dispelled.

It is said that the essence of art is a passion to look and a capacity to see. Bergman’s camera explores human faces more revealingly and with greater intensity than any filmmaker alive. I know nothing of his method of working with actors but it is an extraordinary collaborative artistic achievement. Liv Ullman reminds us in Saraband that beauty is a spiritual quality and that she can reveal an astonishing richness of emotion and thought when listening as well as speaking. This is performance that transcends technique.

I did not see the 1973 Scenes From a Marriage whose key characters Marianne (Ullman) and Johan (Erland Josephson) reappear in Saraband. Divorced for more than 10 years and with little contact in between, Saraband’s thin narrative thread begins with Marianne’s apparently random, motiveless decision to suddenly visit Johan. If any part of Bergman’s artistic intention is to utilise the resonance of the history of their previous relationship, then by definition, I am blind to it. However, everything else in Saraband suggests to me that this would be too parochial a theme for this final film in a unique career. From within Saraband itself one can say that Ullman’s Marianne appears to have no hankering for the past or unresolved feelings for Johan. Her response to his night-time existential dread, in one of the most moving scenes in the film, is not one of reawakened sexuality or remembered love, but more a compassionate tenderness for a flawed human being momentarily frightened at the reality of his own mortality. Johan’s dread is not simply of death. Rather, clear-eyed to his own flaws and failures as a man and especially as a father, he knows these are irretrievable and irredeemable. This is the dread of self-contempt and in her emotional wisdom Marianne realises this and tries to comfort him without a false forgiveness he would recognise and reject. The sensitivity not just of the import of this scene but the way that Bergman shoots it with the naked Ullman in silhouette, is a masterly piece of cinema.

Karin, Henrik’s cellist daughter, and Johan’s granddaughter, supplies the future dimension of Saraband and is played with an impressive hemmed in vitality by Julia Dufvenius. Her implied physical surrogacy towards her emotionally dependent father, after her mother’s death is treated more as the only form of support that could reach him, than one of guilty incestuous passion. In this strand of the existential dilemmas, the relationship between Karin and Marianne becomes critical. Bergman’s respect for the moral strength of women and scarcely concealed contempt for the behaviour of men, plays out through the relationship between Marianne and Karin. Here we see the only laughter and fun in the movie arising from a sense of solidarity between these two women; the one at the hopeful beginning of her journey through life; the other at an end, tinged with a weary resignation and as we come to see, an unresolved personal tragedy.

Bergman allows himself one partial moment of relief from the unremitting emotional austerity of the film. And it is key. The toughest challenge of all to the existentialist perspective of our world as a function of choice, however difficult the circumstances, is the case of those who are too mentally or physically impaired to be able to make such a choice. As if a class of people are excluded from life. References to Marianne’s institutionalised, totally withdrawn daughter Martha drift through the movie like accusatory shadows. At the end, in another moving scene, we see Marianne appear to elicit a first ever, momentary flash of recognition from her daughter. But consistent to his theme, Bergman leaves it ambiguous as to whether this moment is real or desperately needed wishful thinking by Marrianne. He has by this stage so drawn us into a deep engagement in her emotional life that we both hope she is right and respect her self-deception if not.

I should point out that with a distinctly limited musical knowledge, the nuances of the musical dimension to this film are regretfully lost to me. However insofar as music provides a satisfying structure and accompaniment to the movie, its 'dance' of characters adds enormously to its beauty and resonance.

This is an emotionally implacable film. You need to feel pretty existentially robust to put into it the effort of concentration it needs and deserves. No single film could possibly ‘sum up’ the cinematic genius of Bergman. But as a distillation of decades of impressive exploration of profound themes in human life, Saraband is a more than worthy celebration of the work of one of the greatest Directors the medium has known.

Zettel 2005

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Comments by other Members

Cornelia at 17:23 on 01 August 2007  Report this post
Zettel, thanks for reminding me in such an interesting and entertaining way of a film I thought I hadn't seen. I had seen the earlier 'Scenes from a Marriage', also 'Fanny and Alexander', which I preferrred to his earlier 'summer idyll' films. I first heard of his death when Woody Allen was being asked to pay tribute on Radio 4. You'll know Allen always said he was inspired by Bergman and identified with his sense of 'existential dread'. Somehow all his ruminations become comic.I don't have a recorded Bergman, but am hoping we'll get some TV trbutes now. I watched 'Husband and Wives' again instead, which was entertaining in its own way, and had all the characters pouring out their hearts to a 'shrink' but it lacks what you rightly describe as the emotional implacability of Bergman. What a fantastic, gift, too, in his lead players, Ullman and Josephson. They are enough to make anybody feel suicidal.What was that film where Josephson steers a small boat through water with floating bodies?

I think they are showing 'The Seventh Seal' at the National Gallery in August.

Oh, dear we have lost Antonioni this week, too.


Zettel at 22:20 on 03 August 2007  Report this post

Don't know the one with boat and the bodies.

I don't find Bergman depressing but curiously life-affirming. In the existential sense that if there is no heaven or hell, no eternal rewards then we are as we must be, judged not on what the world throws at us, for that is pure chance and not under our control; but by our response to the challenges fate throws at us. And the immense richness of Bergman's cinema is not only the range of responses he depicts but the fact that he is almost totally non-judgemental about them. He shows us humanity in all its richness, he doesn't try to judge it or explain it. He is an existential director, interested in existential themes and totally honest and truthful to both.

No director before or since has ever allowed the human face to show us the 'soul' within, with such clarity and depth.

Saw The Seventh Seal at the Curzon Soho last week. Visually still stunning though the didacticism and wordiness was something the mature Bergman learned to pare down and distil. The young director was a visual artist and innovator, a philosopher on the wordy side (are't we all!). The mature director of Saraband was a visual poet who has learned to allow his images and imagery to resonate with meaning rather than explain itself to us.

That quality of show not tell is what unites Bergman with Antonioni, so very different in other ways, our other great loss this week. neither ever had what we would call in modern terms a 'hit'. But they took the paradigm 20th century popular art form to its limits and deepened and enriched it in ways that so many artists who followed learned from. Of course if you write obituaries for the Times and park your brain in the foyer before going in to watch a film, you aren't going to get the point at all. Just about the the dumbest obit I've ever read - don't know if you saw it. The man's a total prat. How's that for reasoned argument?



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