Ingmar Bergman swore off filmmaking more than two decades ago after finishing his expansive, densely populated and profoundly autobiographical "Fanny and Alexander" (1983), which won four Academy Awards and an enthusiastic new audience. "Fanny and Alexander" would have made a natural (if uncharacteristically affirmative) farewell to the screen for Bergman -- and it was so hailed, as he steadfastly refused to direct any of the scripts he continued to turn out every few years during his long, self-imposed exile on a rocky island called Faro in the Baltic Sea. His days behind the camera, he promised, in interview after grudgingly proffered interview, were well and truly over.
But now the Swedish master, who turned 87 in July, has broken his promise, and broken it magnificently, with "Saraband," a film that is as spare and taut as "Fanny and Alexander" was exuberant and encyclopedic. "Saraband" -- 10 fiercely concentrated scenes, sealed with prologue and epilogue -- marks a return to the spirit of the filmmaker's countryman and first important influence, August Strindberg, and his excruciatingly intimate "chamber plays," most of which Bergman directed in the theater. At no point in the film's 111 minutes are more than two actors onscreen at one time. Yet nothing is missing -- the emotional life of "Saraband" is as abundant as it is austere.
A saraband is a grave, courtly Baroque dance; an alternative title might have been "Post-Mortem of a Marriage." The principal characters are Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann), the same couple on whom Bergman built his early 1970s series of television programs (and subsequent, wildly popular, filmic distillation) "Scenes From a Marriage."
When "Saraband" opens, the two have been divorced more than 30 years. Johan has grown wealthy, querulous and reclusive; Marianne, willfully even-tempered, is still working as a lawyer in Stockholm. The reunion, set into motion by what might be described as a long-meditated whim on the part of Marianne, is complicated by Johan's estrangement from his widowed, depressive son Henrik (Borje Ahlstedt), who continues to live on his father's property in barely stifled incestuous longing with his lovely, gifted 19-year-old daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius), who dreams of running away and playing in an orchestra.
From these bare bones Bergman constructs a universe. Great subjects are explored -- love, memory, desire, filial devotion, parental authority and the mystery and majesty of human communication, even beyond death. At the end, as in so many of Bergman's best films, nothing is settled -- he is too uncompromising an artist to throw us a bonbon or easy epigram to take home with us -- but we have now traveled a good distance with his characters and the world seems a darker, more intricate and, yes, more magical place than it did a couple of hours earlier.
Even more so than "Fanny and Alexander," "Saraband" has the sense of a summing up from Bergman. The film is dedicated to the late Ingrid Karlebo, to whom he was married from 1971 until her death in 1995 (her image, preserved in a framed photograph cherished by all of the principal characters, haunts the action like a benign ghost). Most of the rest of the cast might be considered "family" as well. Josephson has been a friend and colleague for half a century. Ullmann not only appeared in a number of Bergman's best films but directed two of his recent scripts; moreover, they had a daughter together in the 1960s. Indelible, unmistakable references to many past works are here -- the empty church from "Winter Light," the last testaments from dying women so memorably conveyed in "Cries and Whispers" and "The Silence," and whole passages from "Wild Strawberries," Bergman's pastoral meditation on old age, created when he was still in his thirties, a lifetime ago.
No filmmaker has chosen music so carefully -- and then used it so sparingly -- as Bergman. Background music simply does not exist in his films; the introduction of a melody is just as important as the introduction of a new character, and sometimes changes the whole terrain, as surely as Technicolor transforms Dorothy's world after her crash landing in Oz. In "Saraband," the principal musical material is the searing movement of the same name from J.S. Bach's Cello Suite No. 5, which Bergman has employed once before, in "Cries and Whispers," to express catharsis when words were no longer sufficient. Here, Bach serves as nothing less than the spiritual mortar that holds the film together.
The performances -- welling, unified and multidimensional -- are beyond praise, as are Bergman's visual images. Indeed, it would be difficult to identify a single frame in "Saraband" that is not a distinguished composition in itself; Bergman has the eye of a latter-day Vermeer.
It is not necessary to know "Scenes From a Marriage" -- or, for that matter, any of Bergman's films -- in order to approach "Saraband." But you should see it in a theater, as the space and luminous darkness that will surround you there are as important a part of the experience as silence is in a symphony. Even more than most filmmakers, Bergman is diminished when seen at home, amid the general tumult of busy living quarters. Far better to pay him full attention as he casts his subtle and monumental shadows on the screen for us one last time.
Saraband (111 minutes, at Cinema Arts and Landmark's E-Street and Bethesda Row) is rated R for brief nudity, brief violence and profanity.