Bergman's final journey into the dark opens at last

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Tonight they will file into a darkened salon at the National Film Theatre to partake in a seminal moment of the hallowed 85-year-old director's career - the screening of what is being hailed as his final film.

Saraband, originally made in 2003 for Swedish television, was watched by virtually the whole of Sweden, where the director still towers over cultural life.

The film received rapturous reviews this summer at the Seattle International Film Festival, and had a sneak preview at Edinburgh. Today, his 105-minute swansong goes on general release, beginning with a two-week run at the NFT.

Geoff Andrew, the NFT's film programmer, said he was hoping for an enthusiastic response. "Bergman has never been Lord of the Rings in terms of box office, but we are hoping for good things," he said. "Saraband is an amazingly frank film about how cruel people can be to each other and how weak they can feel. It is like someone grabbing you by the wrists and telling you all your strengths and all your weaknesses in the most honest terms possible."

In the film, divided into 10 dialogues sandwiched between a prologue and an epilogue, Bergman reunites the characters and actors from his 1973 classic Scenes from a Marriage, also a made-for-television production.

Liv Ullmann, the director's real-life former lover, mother of his child and star of some of his most famous films, plays the elderly Marianne seeking out her former husband, Johan, played by Erland Josephson.

The film takes its name from Bach's notoriously complicated cello suites, and much of the action - such that there is - revolves around the relationship between the overbearing father of a young cellist and his own father, Johan.

Four times married, once widowed, Bergman's seven-decade career has earned him three Oscars, a Legion of Honour and countless imitators from Woody Allen to Robert Altman. And much as they have done in the past, critics have been quick to draw parallels between his work and his own troubled life, particularly his unhappy childhood.

But some do not share such an elevated view of the director's abilities. In his most recent interview, the reclusive Swede himself admitted that he too struggled to watch his own films. "I become so jittery and ready to cry ... and miserable. I think it's awful," he told Swedish television from his retreat on the deserted island of Faaroe, 100 miles south-east of Stockholm.

The forces driving him to write for three hours every day, are "fear, rage, laziness, control, boredom", he said.

His work has been as mercilessly lampooned as it has been praised. And despite the exhortations of the critics, the European art-house cinema scene in Britain is perilously close to extinction. In 2004, once The Passion of the Christ was excluded, European language films accounted for just 1 per cent of cinema takings.