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David Styburski
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Movie Review: Saraband

The other day, I moaned and groaned on this blog about the French film “Look at Me” and opined that the characters in that movie talked a lot without seeming to learn anything new about themselves or each other. With “Saraband,” Ingmar Bergman, world cinema’s most highly esteemed living filmmaker, has calmed me down, having created a story that involves people who talk with a purpose, listen well and strive for a level of emotional maturity even as their physical strength fades as a result of the aging process.

“Saraband” updates the story of Johan and Marianne, the husband and wife from 1973’s “Scenes From a Marriage” played by Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann. Bergman fans will undoubtedly enjoy the opportunity to catch up with the couple, but the movie works just fine for people like me who haven’t seen the earlier picture. The details of the past aren’t necessary to understand the relationship between this man and this woman. All the audience needs to know is that the two of them have a rich history together, a fact that is made obvious by the immediate honesty and empathy of their talks. As the film opens, Johan is 86 years old, Marianne is 63, and they have not seen each other since their divorce three decades earlier. But something inside Marianne tells her she must see Johan, and she visits him in his secluded cottage long enough to become familiar with the communication problems between him, his alternately weak and monstrous son and a heavily burdened granddaughter.

Bergman, who turned 87 in July, probably has learned a few things about ageing, and with the help of Josephson and Ullmann, makes the idea of growing older seem like an opportunity to gather increased wisdom and grace. Johan and Marianne tenderly surprise us by not using their time together to open old wounds or to hurt each other to boost their respective egos. They don’t fool themselves, mind you; he knows that she was unfaithful, and she knows that he was, too. But the space that 32 years put between them allowed those wounds to at least stabilize, if not completely heal. Although neither person has probably ever apologized for any wrongdoing, there seems to be an unsaid yet understood forgiveness of the past that came from both of them deciding that they valued their love more than their anger. It’s difficult to picture them coming to that conclusion 20 or even 10 years earlier, but at this moment, given their lifetimes of experiences, their priorities seem appropriate.

No one in “Saraband” is a saint. Although Johan and Marianne’s relationship is one of deep warmth, Johan has things in his past that he can’t put aside, and his son is worse for it. The son, too, can’t get over something and hurts his daughter as a result. Yet, the characters are all thoughtful enough and, deep down, decent enough to recognize their faults when confronted with the peace between Johan and Marianne. Even Marianne, who does more listening than anything else, comes to realize that her visit wasn’t a pointless itch she needed to scratch. From young granddaughter to old couple, everyone in “Saraband” takes life in and subtly lets it teach its lessons.

Posted: August 14, 2005 ,   Modified: August 14, 2005

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