A saraband is a slow, stately dance, and Ingmar Bergman's new movie of that title is a slow, stately film. That doesn't mean it's dull, though. Its leisurely, deliberative style is a perfect complement to the emotions it deals with - emotions so penetrating that I warn you at the outset how jarringly intense you may find Bergman's most brilliant drama in decades.
Like many recent Bergman works, "Saraband" is closer to filmed theater (here made with digital video) than to ordinary cinema in the Hollywood sense. It has only four speaking characters, operates more through dialogue than action, and is structured as a series of scenes that resemble the divisions of a stage play or chapters of a novel. Although some episodes are shot and edited in familiar ways, most of the story is conveyed by a gradually shifting camera that prefers a quietly inquisitive approach to the dash and punch of mainstream fare.
The first scene, a prologue, introduces one of the main characters: Marianne, a Swedish senior citizen (played by Liv Ullmann, a longtime Bergman star) who misses her children, one of whom is far away, the other institutionalized because of illness. Restless and energetic, she gets the notion of paying a surprise visit to Johan, her first husband, a retired professor (played by Erland Josephson, another Bergman veteran) who lives a secluded life in Sweden's picturesque boondocks.
Their reunion goes smoothly, and Marianne decides to stay a while. She soon meets Johan's granddaughter Karin, a young cellist trying to organize her future, and his son Henrik, who is Karin's father and music teacher. He's also her biggest challenge - a troubled man who can't stop mourning his wife's death two years earlier.
As the days of Marianne's sojourn slip by, we start seeing the complexities of this extended family. Johan holds his son in contempt for a whole list of reasons. Henrik heartily loathes him in return. Karin is justifiably scared of, and abnormally close to, her deeply neurotic father. All of them are capable of expressing their highly charged feelings when the occasion requires, and sometimes when it doesn't. Still, the film closes with an epilogue that ends the often-melancholy tale on a subtly life-affirming note.
Bergman enfolds these three-dimensional characters within a clever and revealing plot that allows him to explore each of them in relation to one another, to the practical world around them, and (crucially) to themselves as they struggle to understand their own moods, motivations, and needs. Central to this is Karin's effort to decide the next step in her musical education, which could mean breaking with her father and thereby breaking his fragile heart. Her grandfather also gets involved in this emotional struggle, giving it yet another layer of intricate psychological overtones.
Bergman admirers will already know the Johan and Marianne characters from his 1973 drama "Scenes From a Marriage," a literate TV miniseries also released in a shorter (and less exciting) theatrical version. "Saraband" is thus a sequel of sorts, picking up on the separated couple (portrayed by the same performers) some 30 years later. The follow-up film is at least as involving as its predecessor, which became one of Bergman's biggest hits.
This said, my calling "Saraband" the best Bergman movie in decades is not a lofty compliment in itself. To explain why, I have to delve into Bergman's overall career - a vast career including many theater productions as well as more than 60 film and video works, among them such mature masterpieces as "The Silence," the inimitable "Persona," and "Autumn Sonata," which uses music as feelingly as "Saraband" does.
Bergman officially "retired" from cinema with "Fanny and Alexander" in 1982, although he's continued to make TV movies and direct stage plays. For me, his work started running out of steam with "From the Life of the Marionettes" in 1980, becoming static, ponderous, and often too talky for comfort.
The same charges may be leveled at "Saraband" by today's more fidgety viewers. I feel it triumphs over Bergman's weaker tendencies, however, by virtue of its profound investment in music - reflected by its title, by the Bach and Bruckner pieces it employs, and by its meditative visual style, as eloquent and elegant as any saraband could be.
In short, "Saraband" is the best movie so far this year, and perhaps the best so far this century. No thoughtful filmgoer should miss it.
• Rated R; contains brief nudity and sexual material.