Ingmar Bergman’s latest (and final?) film, Saraband, revisits the main characters from his earlier Scenes From a Marriage (1973). Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson) are back, now with the addition of Johan’s son Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt), and his 19 year old daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius). Marianne has gone to Johan’s wilderness hideaway to stay with him for a while. They haven’t been together in decades, but something spurs her to go anyway.The film is divided into ten dialogues, each involving two of the characters. And in typical Bergman fashion, we delve deep into their psyches, which in turn reveals the pain and anguish latent after many years of mistreating one another. Yet there’s another source of angst for Johan, Henrik, Karin, and eventually even Marianne – the recent death of Henrik’s wife (Karin’s mother) Anna. For those characters who knew her, she remains close to their hearts and thoughts. She constantly enters into the conversation, with everyone saying how much they miss her, what a great loss it was when she died, and how they each feel connected to her. Marianne never knew her, but as each of the characters introduces her to Anna, she comes to have her own sort of connection with her, illuminated for us in the film’s conclusion.
All of this leads to the features of Saraband that I most appreciate. First, the dialogue is a sharp and piercing as ever. Bergman has always been a keen observer of the human condition, and is especially proficient at writing dialogue that is both clear and thematically conscious. A couple of things come to mind here, beginning with a dialogue between Johan and Henrik, in which the father delivers words of such venom that they cut right through the heart of his son. He may be describing certain tendencies in his son accurately, but the years of selfishness have stripped their interaction of anything remotely approaching gentleness. In terms of theme, Bergman is able to weave in reflections about Anna that strike one as completely natural in the moment, yet use those comments as a whole to bring about a beautiful, puzzling, and strangely hopeful conclusion.
This presence of Anna adds an element of mystery and transcendence to the film, as it threatens to be sucked into the mire of selfish and bitter people. She is dead, yet she becomes a living, breathing human being through the memories of these tortured souls. Her life matters. It continues to make an impact on these people years later. For those who knew her, the change is slight. But for Marianne, the recipient of a miracle, the change is dramatic. This miraculous event happens so quietly and subtly that it may go unnoticed. All through the film, Marianne has emulated Anna, unconsciously, of course. Yet she’s patient, she listens, she aids, and she does what she can for each of them. The culmination of this is a return to her daughter, long since ill and far gone. That moment with Martha hints at Marianne’s transformation into saintly Anna. No doubt the similarity of their names is another indicator of this.
Saraband becomes, then, a film about selfish, wounded, and depraved people that has within it a strong and unmistakable glimmer of hope. Each of these characters has fond memories of Anna. They have some desire to see Anna again, presumably in another life beyond this one. Thus, there’s an implicit hope for them that there’s more to this life than, well, this. This isn’t all there is. People who write about Bergman tend to pick up on the bleak aspects of his work, and rightly so – it’s present here, and at times oppressive. Yet that isn’t all there is.
This is a touching film from a man who is leaving behind him body of work that will be revisited time and again. Saraband is a worthy entry into that canon, and as the final image of Anna’s picture faded from the screen, I couldn’t help but think what a hopeful image it was. Anna remains, even in death. If this is to be his final film, it marks a fitting conclusion to the career of one of the most important filmmakers ever to grace the screens with his work.