Director: Ingmar Bergman
Back in 1982, Ingmar Bergman's magnificent Fanny and Alexander was released (my review here). That film was widely presented as Bergman's "official" final film - a summation of his cinematic career and loving good-bye note to the medium. Afterwards, he kept himself busy by writing screenplays for television and film projects and directing plays. However, he couldn't quite keep himself out of the director's chair. He worked on some television projects as a director in his post-Fanny and Alexander career, yet the one that is most popularly known as his return to film is 2003's Saraband, which truly was his final directorial work before his death in 2007. While not as grand, rich or definitively conclusive as Fanny and Alexander, it still serves as a fitting final word from one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived.
Saraband returns to two characters last seen in Bergman's 1973 work Scenes from a Marriage: Marianne and Johan, portrayed once more by Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. Although some describe this film as a follow-up or sequel to Scenes, it in fact stands quite solidly on its own. I myself have yet to see Scenes, but I had no problem getting into and enjoying the story being told in Saraband. It sufficiently establishes the impression of the deep, troubled history between Marianne and Johan, establishing the nature of their relationship in such a clear and complete fashion that the viewer is given all that is needed in this film alone. In any case, a major factor of the film is the thirty year gap since the two last saw each other, their reunion after so much time just one of the many ways in which the film touches upon the spectre of the past.
The central story of the film doesn't focus on Marianne and Johan, but rather Johan's nineteen year-old granddaughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius) and her father Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt). Both of them are cellists, though Henrik's professional career is steadily winding down. He lost his wife, Anna (represented by a frequently shown photograph and based on Bergman's wife Ingrid Von Rosen, to whom the film is dedicated), two years previous, leaving him with little more than a ferocious, obsessive devotion to Karin. He spends most of his time preparing her for her musical career, often subjecting her to long, stressful practice sessions that take their toll on the young woman. Eventually, circumstances arise that pose a difficult decision before Karin: should she act for the sake of her father, or herself?
Saraband is very much a film about parents and their children, explored not only through Henrik and Karin, but also Henrik's relationship with Johan, who fathered him from a marriage before Marianne. This father-son bond is rotted to the core, with the two men on the bitterest of terms. Johan cares a great deal about Karin, but is ultimately dismayed at the failure his son has made of himself. Both Johan and Henrik reveal unpleasant qualities, but it is ultimately the older man who is the more formidable one, subjecting his son to scathing contempt. As he has done before in films like Cries and Whispers, Bergman masterfully explores the darker side of family relations.
Marianne submerges herself in this poisoned atmosphere, essentially an outside observer to the drama surrounding this family, sometimes acting as a confidant. The film is set in the secluded rural area where Johan lives, with Henrik and Karin occupying a nearby cabin. The title refers to a Bach cello suite for couples, which perfectly fits the structure of the film. Its scenes focus on the four characters conversing with each other in pairs: Marianne and Johan, Marianne and Karin, Johan and Henrik, and so forth, made constantly engaging by the power and subtlety of the actors' performances. Bergman's gift for raw dialogue remains fully intact as each of the main characters reveal layers of themselves with magnificently delivered exchanges and monologues weighted down with emotion and honesty.
With its secluded setting and focus on character, Saraband very much resembles a play, yet is still cinematically engaging and visually sumptuous. Working with five cinematographers, Bergman delved into the digital realm with this film and managed to produce images so smooth that they could easily pass for ones shot on film. As one would expect, Bergman makes the most of the human face, holding long close-ups on his actors, further uncovering their characters' layers of feelings and conflicts. The framing and lighting remains as top-notch as one would expect from a Bergman film (particularly a late Bergman), allowing the viewers to seamlessly slip into the story that is unraveling before them.
For one last time, the master successfully proved his worth. Any fans of him or simply great cinema will likely be pleased by what Saraband has to offer them.