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Friday, Oct. 20, 2006

An old man sprints to the finish

At 88, Ingmar Bergman's fascination with human relationships hasn't waned or soured. He continues to be surprised and ultimately enraptured by the mysterious ways human beings bond and then part.

Saraband Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Julia Dufvenius and Borje Ahlstedt in "Saraband" (c)SVT 2006. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Running time: 112 minutes
Language: Swedish
Opens Oct. 21, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

After a 13-year hiatus, in which he worked mostly on TV scripts, "Saraband" is a masterful, triumphant comeback -- and perhaps, given his age, might be the last film he'll make. But there's nothing in "Saraband" that even hints at fatigue or finality. As of old, his characters are passionately committed to each other, whether by love, lust or hate, and they can't stop talking about it. Emotions are strung tight, tension is kept at max levels and the dialogue is so dense and crackling that subtitles can hardly do it justice. And, with the exception of just one character, the entire cast is over 65. When she was 70, my grandmother used to say that mental serenity was the biggest reward of old age. Well, that's a totally alien concept to the "Saraband" cast. In fact, if one of them had access to a gun, the whole package could turn into something Quentin Tarantino would truly appreciate.

"Saraband" begins with a first-person narrative by 60-something Marianne (Bergman's favorite actress and longtime lover Liv Ullman) standing in front of a table strewn with old family photographs -- she addresses the camera and recounts how she had one day gotten an urge to look up her ex-husband Johan (Erland Josephson), now in his mid-80s. She hadn't seen Johan since their divorce more than 30 years ago and apparently he hadn't bothered to keep in touch with their daughters, either. When she does act on this urge, Johan -- comfortably situated in a lakeside house in the country -- is, at first, a little tense. But he quickly warms to his ex-wife and they're able to exchange some left over affection.

Instead of staying just one afternoon as she had originally planned, Marianne decides to stay for awhile, though her motives for doing so at this point are still unclear. (Johan warns that a reconciliation is not in the works.) Besides, Johan is deeply entrenched in his own affairs, like nursing a 50-year hatred for his 65-year-old son, Henrik (Borje Ahlstedt), from his first marriage. Henrik has moved into a cottage on his property with teenage daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius) in tow, and Johan rages that his son can't even afford to pay rent. In this cottage, Henrik is grooming the gifted Karin for a classical music career (she's a cellist), ignoring the fact that he himself is impoverished, unemployed and still grieving over his wife who died two years before. Johan despises Henrik for his lack of talent and mental dependency on the beautiful Karin which, as we learn later, has manifested in the most unforgivable of ways.

Marianne maintains the position of observer; being a divorce lawyer she's used to family feuding. Sensing her disinterested sympathy, Karin frequents Johan's house for long talks, much to the consternation of Henrik. Oddly enough, Marianne hardly ever has a te^te-a-te^te with Johan -- the pair occupy differing spaces in his vast house, and though there are references to mealtimes we never actually see them sitting down at the table together. In one unforgettable scene, however, Johan knocks on Marianne's door in the middle of the night. He's drenched in sweat and shaking from a nightmare. She kindly invites him to share her narrow single bed ("we've slept in smaller beds than this!") and obeys his command to take off her nightgown. It's not passion or lust that moves her, but a loyalty based on ties they once shared. This isn't to say that the scene has any elements of peace (or serenity) to it. Johan spews his venom against Henrik, alternating with fond memories of his dead daughter-in-law, for whom he clearly had more than a familial regard. Thus Johan demonstrates that he still has the power to hurt Marianne, who seemingly takes his abuse as a matter of course.

"Saraband" is relentless: There are no spaces of quiet, no pockets of relief. As with a lot of his movies, the characters tear at each other with ferocious honesty (or just plain ferociousness), and at times the abuse is such that the screen seems spattered with blood. It takes a special kind of stamina to keep emotions pitched at this level, but Bergman is up to the task, as is the cast. Especially traumatic to witness are the scenes between Johan and Henrik -- the way the father deliberately shatters every last vestige of the son's self-esteem and dignity; it's scarier than most horror movies. Poor Henrik: a whiny, doughy man with a tendency to cling. Compared to him, Johan comes off as a seductive, gnarly powerhouse, able to dispense colossal damage or incredible love at the merest inflection of his voice. Both men circle around Karin, as if winning her over is a testament to their manhood. It's a wonder how she manages to survive the ordeal -- as Marianne rightfully tells her, "Take care. When one is young, relationships have the power to kill."

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