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Saraband
Reviewed by Dennis Morton
Review Date: 8.9
.05 & 8.10.05

A saraband, my dictionary says, is a graceful, stately dance.

In Ingmar Bergman's first film in over twenty years, the dancing more frequently resembles a vicious verbal wrestling match. The entire film consists of conversation.

As if to make it clear that panoramic camera work is not the order of the day, Bergman

has one of his characters remark, early in the movie, about the beauty of the scenery. Two postcard perfect stills of the Swedish wilderness then mockingly occupy the screen for about three seconds. From that point on, most of the film is a talk-fest with the camera aimed squarely at the conversationalists. Talk-fest is the wrong word. There's little that's festive in Saraband , a dour but brilliantly written film.

The central character is Marianne, played by the great Liv Ullman. She narrates the film, often looking into the camera and speaking directly to us. The effect is to turn the viewer into a character, of sorts, albeit a mute and impotent one. We can do nothing but watch and listen as the two men in the film vainly attempt to exert dominance, and the two women attempt to humanize them.

The film opens with Liv Ullman's character, Marianne, sitting at a large desk strewn with photographs. We learn that she's a successful lawyer, specializing in family disputes and divorces, an irony that will soon become evident. She looks at us and tells us that though it's not in her nature, she's about to do something impetuous. She's going to visit her ex-husband, Johan.

Johan, late in his life, has become a wealthy man, having inherited a distant aunt's fortune. He's used some of the money to purchase a large estate once owned by his grandparents. The “action”, as it were, starts when Marianne arrives at the wilderness estate and enters what appears to be a deserted house. Two doors slam, seemingly on their own, and a cuckoo clock strikes five.

Marianne pauses at the door to the veranda, looks at us and wonders if this is such a good idea. She gives herself one minute to decide, then passes through the door and wakes a sleeping Johan with a kiss on the cheek.

The film unfolds in ten parts, each part revealing greater and greater depths of estrangement. We learn that Marianne and Johan have two daughters, but Johan has no idea where or how they are. We learn that Johan has a son, Hendrik, from whom he is emotionally light years distant, but physically only a few miles removed. And the feeling,

or lack thereof, is reciprocal. It is only Hendrik's financial neediness that compels him to visit his father. Their conversation is so painful that my heart winced, each time I watched this film.

And on and on it goes.

I've said there are four characters, but I haven't mentioned Karin, Hendrick's conflicted daughter. Karin is a student of the cello, that most lachrymose of instruments. Besides intimations of incest between Hendrik and Karin, there's a lot of mourning going on. Johan, Hendrik and Karin are deeply grieving the death of Anna, Hendrik's wife. Though she's been dead for two years, her ghostly, saintly, wordless presence haunts their lives. The real dance in Saraband is with her spirit.

The lesson in this, probably Bergman's final film, is how not to live one's life. Clear your mind, leave the kids at home and hurry to the Nickelodeon Theatre in downtown Santa Cruz to catch the master's final epic.