Ingmar Bergman's self-declared final film "Saraband" is a masterpiece. Period. It's also one of his greatest films and one of the all-time great closing statements of a film director - to be ranked alongside Robert Bresson's "L'Argent", Andrei Tarkovsky's "Sacrifice" and Sergei Paradjanov's "Ashik-Kerib".
The general meaning ascribed to the title "Saraband" by the film critics has been an "erotic dance for two". And because its ten sections (each preceded with an intertitle) involve only two characters at a time, most critics feel they have discovered the director's intention behind the title of the film. But is this really the case? A "Saraband" is a musical term, which refers to one of the most soulfully beautiful and deeply searching pieces in all Classical Music. In J.S. Bach's music the Saraband was raised to the highest height of musical spiritual expression. While all of his Sarabands (and he wrote a lot of them) are stunning, the ones he wrote as part of his "Cello Suites" are particularly amazing. In this film, Bergman uses the Saraband from Bach's Fifth Cello Suite - the same piece, incidentally, that Mstislav Rostropovich performed at Tarkovsky's funeral. It's truly a piece for the end of the road - even for the end of the world - full of melancholic beauty, introspection and regret and a deep inner longing to return to the Home of our spiritual origin. And Bergman's film resonates on this frequency. Hence, the significance of the film's title. By the way, there is splendid use of other classical music throughout this film, including an incredible scene where Johan places his head between two speakers blasting out the Scherzo movement of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony.
A brief mention should also be made about the stunning look of the film, which was shot on HD digital video, and makes one regret the late arrival of a technology that could have been of great use to this genius of the cinema. The finely delineated textures of the mise-en-scene and the rich immediacy of the actors faces creates an overwhelmingly vivid canvas for Bergman to weave his magic on. The masterful chiaroscuro compositions so identifiable with long-time Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist have been beautifully rendered in this film by a team of three(!) cinematographers. Scene after scene, the interplay of light and shadow reminds one of the work of Rembrandt and Caravaggio. There are also plenty of self-references, such as the scene in the church, where rays of light pour through a side window, reminding one of the streaming light in "Winter Light".
The film itself is like a beautifully woven basket that is full of poisonous snakes. Here, Bergman plays the master of deception, the snake charmer - it is as if he is saying, life itself is full of wrong turns and self-deceptions and then suddenly it's over, just like that. It's a hard-won point of view from a man approaching ninety, who feels things through his art more deeply than just about any other person on this planet. 
In terms of the story, Bergman leads us to believe that he has created a sequel to his 1974 soap-opera drama "Scenes from a Marriage" (despite popular consensus, not one of his better efforts.) But this is not so. Bergman merely uses the reunion, after 30 estranged years, of Marianne (radiantly played by Liv Ullmann) and Johan (consummately performed by Erland Josephson) as a framing device to explore much deeper territory. Any person expecting to see "Scenes" Part Two will, thankfully, not get what they came to see. What they will get is Bergman in top form, where sharp turn follows sharp turn, leading us into areas of moral ambiguity where people can no longer hide under delusional cloaks of respectability. And presiding over the events, Ullmann often appears like the mysterious mute actress in "Persona", listening to and witnessing the moral plights of those around her.
For Bergman this is undoubtedly the end of life's road. And there is an unmistakable aura of the Final Judgment which pervades this film, a sense which actually underscores all his best work (from the "Seventh Seal" to his "Trilogy of Faith" to "Hour of the Wolf" and "Shame" to "Cries and Whispers" and all the way to "Fanny and Alexander"). It is in this context that one of the principle characters, Henrik (Johan's son) proclaims, "sometimes I feel that an incredible punishment is waiting for me."
Indeed, Henrik (in a virtuosic performance by Borje Ahlstedt, who previously played Uncle Carl in "Fanny and Alexander") may be the character most at the core of this haunted and haunting film. He is both an aristocratic performer (witness his amazing organ performance of Bach's last Trio Sonata) and a "pitiable" man, a term used by Marianne to also describe her present feelings towards Johan. He is deeply flawed, but unlike his father, he lives moment to moment the nightmarish reality of his inadequacies. Failing to recover from the death of his beautiful wife two years before, Henrik, a semi-successful cellist, seeks a soulmate in his equally-beautiful teenage daughter, Karin (in an awe-inspiring performance by Bergman newcomer Julia Dufvenius), also a cellist. The relationship between the father and daughter has more than likely crossed the line into incest (Bergman drops many hints but never states it blatantly.) Karin, like Marianne, is spiritually superior to the men in the film and eventually finds the strength to sever her ties with her father and pursue her own course in music and in life, which then leads to devastating consequences.
The women in the film do exhibit profound empathy for the pathetic plights of their courser companions. It is, however, an understanding that is essentially wrong. Despite their fine and noble intentions, these women become patsies for their male counterparts, often ending up indulging those male weaknesses for years just because they themselves have not developed the proper moral barometer. Indeed, even at the end of his life, Bergman has fashioned a film that is in search of such a moral imperative. It is as if, coming to the end of his earthly road, Bergman recognizes with horror that none of the important questions of life and death have been solved through art or through "living". There is a bleak, half-hearted entreaty that these questions will somehow fair better in the hands of succeeding generations. But, Bergman being Bergman knows better: they never do. For most, moral accountability will be the final horror. Whether they believe in God or not, man's fate is governed by the Laws of Creation, which exist regardless of human acknowledgment. In an amazing display of the Creator's Love for His Work, these Living Laws guide men unerringly to experience for themselves the consequences of their actions. Man must then adjust himself to these Laws or be crushed. The only moral dilemma is why mankind so stubbornly resists learning these natural lessons, often preferring a life (and death) full of darkness, misery and discontent. In a conversation between two of the greatest existential philosophers of the 20th century, Martin Buber explained his view of man's moral situation to Lev Shestov:
We are wrong to believe ourselves superior to these events, to believe that we know what is bad, that we possess the light, to talk about Spirit....I have lost most of my faith in the individual and even more in the collective. We have reached a frontier. It is the end of the road. We do not know where to go next. We must find what must be done - but nobody has found as yet. It is very different from the advent of Christianity; then John the Baptist announced that the Kingdom of God was approaching; something was on its way, something one was going to be able to touch... Today the pillar that was holding the ceiling has crumbled... Nothing is approaching. It is again the same darkness as was then but without the pillar, without a way to follow. Clearly, I am not talking about miracles, the possibility of being saved by God; I am talking about man's part in the human action and today that part is compromised. To begin with, one should become conscious of darkness, to let sink in the idea that it's only a darkness - that alone would allow to start searching for a way out, for light. (Friday, April 13th, 1934)
As if in response to Buber's courageous and desperate search for the Light, a special book appeared in Germany around that time: "In the Light of Truth: The Grail Message" by a man writing under the name of Abd-ru-shin. Here are a few quotes from  it, relating directly to Buber's concerns:

"But today there will be no recurrence of what happened in Christ's time! At that time the Word came! Mankind had their free will, and the majority then decided to reject and repudiate this Word! From that time onwards they were subject to the Laws, which were automatically linked to the free decision then carried out in this way. Thereafter men found all the fruits of their own volition on their self-chosen path.

Soon the ring will close. Things are piling up ever more, rising like a rampart which will soon collapse and crash down upon mankind, who go on living unsuspectingly in spiritual apathy. Finally, at the time of fulfillment, they will naturally no longer have the free choice!

They must now just reap what they sowed at that time, and also later on their wrong ways.

All who once rejected the Word at the time of Christ are today reincarnated on this earth to settle accounts. Now they no longer have the right to be forewarned, and to make a second decision. In the two thousand years they have had time enough to change their minds! Also he who absorbs a wrong interpretation of God and His Creation, and does not exert himself to grasp it more purely, has not absorbed It at all. Indeed, it is far worse, for a wrong belief keeps one back from grasping the Truth."

"At present many a person very often thinks: If tribulation and destruction are to be expected in order to bring about a great purification, then God must be so just as to send out in advance preachers calling for repentance. Man must certainly be forewarned. Where is John who proclaims what is to come?

These are wretched ones who think themselves so wise, but are so empty-minded! Such cries merely conceal an utterly hollow presumption. They would only scourge him and throw him into prison!" (from the chapter "What Separates So Many from the Light Today?" by Abd-ru-shin, "In the Light of Truth: The Grail Message".)

"Do not imagine that God will now simply lift you out of the loathsome swamp which keeps clinging to you with great tenacity, with the same tenacity as you applied in forming such a swamp through your rigid stubbornness against the Will of God!

God does not lift you out of it through gratitude that you at last show some signs of being willing! Oh no, you must work yourselves out of it, just as you allowed yourselves to sink into it!
You must exert yourselves, exert yourselves honestly and with great diligence, so as to be able to come up again on to healthy ground! Only when you do this will you be given the strength you need, but always and only in the same measure as your volition. This is inexorably demanded by the Justice which lies in God.
And therein lies the help which is promised you, the help you will receive in the very moment when your inner volition has at last become deed, not before!
To help you achieve this, however, the Word has been brought to you as a gift from God, the Word which shows in all clearness the path you must follow if you wish to save yourselves! In the Word lies the Grace which God gives in His incomprehensible Love, as has already happened once through Jesus.
The Word is the gift! The great sacrifice of God, however, is the deed - to send the Word as far as to the Gross Material Worlds, to you men here, a mission always connected with great suffering because of man's attitude, which through his stubborn conceit is one of hostility towards the Light! And nobody else can give the true Word to mankind but a Part of the Word Itself. The Bringer of the Living Word must therefore also be from the Word Itself!"

"Whether you really still wish to save yourselves is solely your concern; for this God-Perfection, which made the great sacrifice of God a necessary consequence, now also demands the destruction of everything in the entire Creation that cannot voluntarily adjust itself according to the Laws of His Will.

There is neither mercy nor escape in this matter, no exception or deviation, but solely the outworking according to the Laws in Creation through the closing of the cycle of all past actions." (from the chapter "Do Not Fall in Temptation" by Abd-ru-shin, "In the Light of Truth: The Grail Message".)

"It is just by demanding spiritual alertness right from the beginning, together with an earnest volition and self-exertion for the understanding of his words, that a helper easily separates the grain from the chaff already at the outset. An automatic working lies in this, as it is in the Divine Laws. Here, too, men receive exactly according to their actual volition." (from the chapter "The Call for the Helper" by Abd-ru-shin, "In the Light of Truth: The Grail Message".)

Copyright (c) 2005 Gregory and Maria Pearse