Dir/scr: Ingmar Bergman.Swe. 2003. 107mins.
The valedictory work of one of the titans of the 20th century art is aminor, unsteady film that will disappoint those who expect a blazing testamentto an awe-inspiring career. But when your name is Ingmar Bergman, no matter. Saraband,upon which the Swedish filmmaker says he's bowing out, bears all the hallmarksof Bergman's art, if not his full genius, and will elicit passionate commentand commentary for long months, if not years, to come.

Shot in HD for Swedishtelevision in 2003, Saraband was hotly pursued by Cannes and Venice butwas finally bagged last January by a smaller festival in Angers, which held anexhaustive retrospective of his work (it has subsequently screened at Montrealand Thessaloniki among others).

Jeanne Moreau is then saidto have made a direct plea to Bergman to let the film be seen theatrically inFrance. The director finally relented on the proviso that it be shown only onhi-tech digital projection equipment. Independent distributor Rezo Films wonthe contract and has so far opened it in two specially equipped Paris venues(as well as a smattering elsewhere), where, despite the film's airing on Artein mid-December, it has enjoyed rapturous praise and brisk business.

In May last year SVT tookover the sales mandate from Svensk Filmindustri, cancelling all existingcontracts which are now open again. Theatrical deals so far include SonyPictures Classics, which has rights for the US (with a provisional release date of July 8 2005), Canada and Latin America. At least two firm offers have comefrom UK distributors also.

Part of the problem with Sarabandis that it has been made out to be something it is not: that is, a purportedsequel to Bergman's masterly 1973 Swedish TV mini-series, Scenes From AMarriage (later made into a film which won a Golden Globe for best foreignlanguage film), in which Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson played aseemingly happy couple whose marriage falls to pieces.

Bergman has reunited thesetwo great actors here, with the same names they had in the TV series, Marianneand Johan. They are long divorced and haven't seen each other in over 30 years.Bergman kick-starts the film into motion when he has Marianne, in an expositoryto-the-camera monologue, decide it's time to visit her former mate.

Trouble is that, apart fromthe fact that the couple have two daughters (one married and living inAustralia, the other confined to a mental institution), the other biographicalgivens don't match.

Firstly, the age difference:in Scenes From A Marriage, Marianne and Johan'she a divorce lawyer, hean academic' were 35 and 42 respectively. In Saraband, Johan, a reclusesince coming into an unexpected inheritance, is a misanthropic 86 (Bergman'sage at the time of filming), while Marianne, still a practicing divorce lawyer,is only 63!

More crucial to the dramaticaction of Saraband is the fact that Johan is given a recently widowed61-year-old son called Henrik from an earlier marriage who lives nearby withhis 19-year-old daughter Karin. It is the latter couple, played in white heatby Borje Ahlstedt and Julia Dufvenius respectively, who gain dramatic andemotional precedence over the putative stars.

Ironically, Bergman has goneon record as saying that the Johan and Marianne of Saraband have nothing to dowith the Johan and Marianne of Scenes From A Marriage, a remark thatadmirers and critics seem determined to ignore.

But this gaping discrepancyshows up one of the major flaws of Saraband: the Marianne-Johan scenesfeel perfunctory and unconvincing, and the couple's final scene, in which theystrip naked and get into bed together, seems like hollow bravado on Bergman'spart.

One never really feelsMarianne's sudden need to go visit Johan after more than three decades ofdefinitive separation; no more explicable is her decision to remain with him athis isolated villa in the woods, even when she knows perfectly well she isoverstaying her welcome.

It's as if, after making thedecision to reunite the couple of Scenes From A Marriage, Bergmansuddenly realised it wasn't such a good idea after all and tried to paint overthe original portraits. Maybe the film should have been called Pentimento.

Saraband, which is divided into 10 scenes book-ended byMarianne's solos to the audience, functions with more dramatic urgency in thescenes involving Henrik and Karin, who are both still deeply affected by thedeath of their wife and mother.

Henrik, a music teacher,wants to forge Karin as a world-rank cellist, but his possessive, incestuousauthority over her leads to a series of clashes that are only resolved by (her)flight and (his) attempted suicide.

One of the film's harshestscenes involves Henrik who comes to implore an advance on his inheritance fromhis estranged father, who sends him packing with all the contempt and loathinghe can muster.

Technically, the film showsBergman's still firm hand, even if there are some egregious, self-referentialtouches that are not worthy of him. But he fully masters the hi-def images, andone is hard-put to realize that this film wasn't shot in traditional 35mm onwhich Bergman has produced his enduring masterpieces.

Prod cos/int'l sales: Sveriges Television
Pia Ernvhall
Raymond Wemmelov, SofiStridh, Per-Olof Lantto
Sylvia Ingemarsson
Prod des:
Goran Wassberg
Bach, Anton Bruckner
Main cast:
Erland Josephson, LivUllmann, Borje Ahlstedt, Julia Dufvenius, Gunnel Fred