Sensible, sixtyish Marianne (Liv Ullmann) is getting exasperated with her cranky, octogenarian ex-husband Johan (Erland Josephson). "Sometimes," she says, "you act like a forgotten character from some stupid old film." That moment in Ingmar Bergman's new film Saraband will stir recollections in viewers who are Marianne's age--or maybe Johan's--since the two characters and the same actors appeared three decades ago in Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage. But to the majority of 'plex patrons, it is the Swedish filmmaker who is the forgotten man.
Once the king of the art-film jungle, Bergman has been consigned to a venerated but remote corner of the cultural zoo. In his cage, three foreign-language Oscars (for The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly and Fanny and Alexander) gathered dust as the ancient creature sat still as a statue.
But now the old lion has roared back to life with one last sublime work. Saraband, the first film Bergman has directed for theatrical release in 20 years (he announced his retirement after Fanny), is a chamber piece: four characters, 10 dialogues. Yet Bergman, who turns 87 this month, gives the story such vigor and rigor, so much emotional bile and spilled blood, that it would shame a much younger director. Here is no mild afterthought to which a critic nods indulgently. This is a testament of love and anguish from the man who used to be called the greatest living filmmaker. Well, dammit, he was. And, as Saraband proves, he still is.
Bergman's need to scream out his fears and hatreds is also evidence of a weird vitality. His gift was always to find universal significance in his private agonies. In a 60-year film career, he has picked at the scabs of his psyche, turning wounds into eloquent words, nightmares into indelible images.
It was that mixture of the confessional and the majestic that made him, in the '50s and '60s, the living symbol of film as literature, movies as high art. With his dense, dead-serious studies of God and death, love and sex, Bergman was dubbed the Shakespeare of the cinema. Two-week-long retrospectives of his films ran in commercial theaters around the country. Critics in the U.S., Britain, France and Sweden wrote full-length studies of his films. In 1960 Bergman graced the cover of TIME, and Simon & Schuster published a book of four of his screenplays--a rare tribute to a movie playwright. The tonier cocktail parties were rife with debates on the elusive, allusive meanings of such films as The Silence and Persona. A Bergman film was like the toughest, most rewarding college course. You crammed for it.
In the '70s, whether or not they knew his name, moviegoers saw Ingmar Bergman films. His influence was everywhere: in the look and some of the scenes of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (inspired by The Seventh Seal), in the horror film The Last House on the Left (a remake of The Virgin Spring) and any number of Woody Allen films, including Interiors (in the manner of Cries and Whispers). On Broadway, Stephen Sondheim transposed the domestic deceptions of Smiles of a Summer Night into A Little Night Music.