Saraband

I’m not sure I want to write about Saraband (2003) just yet. I’m still chewing over what the significance of some scenes might be. Heck, early on, this film brings back that weird paper sun that hung over the final meeting between the two protagonists in Scenes from a Marriage (1973) three decades earlier — and I still haven’t figured out what that object was supposed to signify in that film!

But I might as well toss out a few comments. Ingmar Bergman officially “retired” with Fanny and Alexander in 1982, but since then he has directed an assortment of short films, documentaries, and TV productions, in addition to writing feature films for other directors, such as his longtime muse and onetime lover Liv Ullman. Saraband apparently began as one of his TV projects, but it has been making the rounds theatrically, largely no doubt because of its connection to one of his earlier classics.

But this is no mere sequel. Saraband has a rigorous structure that sets it firmly apart from Scenes from a Marriage. Whereas that film consisted of several episodes focused almost exclusively on the two main characters, the new film is a series of two-person scenes, only three or four of which concern the duo from the earlier film; the other scenes feature either Johan (Erland Josephson) or Marianne (Liv Ullmann) with one of the film’s two new characters, or the two new characters by themselves. And whereas the earlier film implicitly sided with Marianne more than Johan, the new film makes this identification explicit; the entire film is bookended by scenes of Marianne looking at photos and addressing the camera directly, and she even looks at the camera in the middle of one or two of the more “dramatic” scenes.

The two new characters are Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt), Johan’s son by his wife before Marianne, and Henrik’s daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius). Henrik is a widower — his wife died one year ago — and a bit of a loser, whose professional life is now well on the way to being as sad and pathetic as his personal life. Henrik is obsessed with teaching Karin how to play the cello, and one of the questions that hangs over the film is whether he is more interested in Karin herself — his dependence on her is practically incestuous at times — or in her musical ability, which will only truly begin to grow if she leaves him and goes to some sort of music school. Does he have the strength to let her go — or, for that matter, to send her away? And does she have the strength to leave him, knowing she is not responsible for what he does to himself in her absence?

This is the situation that awaits Marianne when she shows up, out of the blue, and visits Johan for the first time in decades. She cannot explain why she made the visit — it was an “irrational” impulse, she says — but she made it all the same, and it becomes the catalyst for some significant changes in certain people’s lives.

In another context, I would almost suggest that there is something “miraculous” about Marianne’s visit. But I’m not sure if that’s what Bergman intends. I do know that I would very much like to know what is going on in the scene where Marianne is standing inside a church, and then a bright light suddenly comes in through a window, and she turns to look at the altar — and at the portrait of the Beloved Disciple reclining on Jesus’ chest in particular — and then she clasps her hands together, as if in prayer.

One other element that intrigues me is the frequently seen photo of Anna, Henrik’s dead wife. The IMDB reports that this is actually a photo of Ingrid Von Rosen, who began an off-and-on affair with Bergman in 1957 that became a marriage in 1971 — a marriage which lasted until her death in 1995. Anna is admired by everyone who speaks of her, but if she was capable of choosing Henrik for a hubby, then she must have had her flaws. And I wonder what point Bergman is making by enshrining his dead wife’s image in this film, and by “casting” her as this particular character.

Only time will tell how this film ranks among Bergman’s other efforts, but its deliberate theatricality — watch those doors that slam all by themselves! — and emotional depth are certainly of a piece with his other works. Catch it if you can.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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