MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Arthouse Redux: Themes of Forgiveness

This past Sunday, the sermon at our Unitarian church was about the Jewish High Holy Days Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the bookends of the “Days of Awe” on the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur is, of course, about atonement and repentance, and all the talk in the sermon about Yom Kippur got me thinking about two very different films in which forgiveness is a theme.

One, the aptly titled Forgiveness, is a South African post-apartheid reflection of guilt and repentance; the other, Saraband, a meditation on familial relationships, forgiveness and mortality, was Ingmar Bergman‘s last film.

I’d been looking for Forgiveness (dir. Ian Gabriel), off and on, since I saw it at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2005. I don’t know why it took me so long to think of looking for it at Seattle’s Scarecrow Video, because there it was, waiting quietly, dustily, amidst the other DVDs in the “South Africa” section of the store.

The film concerns a disgraced police officer, Tertius Couzee (Arnold Vosloo), who’s carrying a burden of guilt for his role in the death of a Daniel Grootboom, a bright young anti-apartheid freedom fighter some ten years earlier. Couzee’s overwhelming sense of guilt has not been assuaged by the awarding of amnesty by a South African “Truth Commission” following the killing; unable to forgive himself for the young man’s death, he finally decides to seek out Daniel’s family in a remote fishing village, to repent for the boy’s death and ask forgiveness of his family.

Daniel’s family, though, isn’t quite so ready to forgive. Couzee witnesses for himself the burden Daniel’s family has carried since his death: the relentless grief of his mother (Denise Newman), whose life came grinding to a halt with the death of her oldest child; the guilt of the father (Zane Meas), who wanted to keep his boy safe and close to home in the fishing village, but allowed his bright son to go off to university instead, where he became involved in the fight for freedom; the brother, Ernest, and sister, Sannie (Christos David and Quanita Adams, respectively), who cannot escape either the rage and pain of their loss or the long shadow cast by a favored older sibling, now lost forever. Then there are Daniel’s friends, a trio of freedom fighters still weighed down by guilt and eager to exact revenge — and the friend who is unable to forgive himself for the betrayal that led to Daniel’s death. Couzee’s path to redemption, therefore, is fraught with emotional — and potential physical — peril.

I love this way this film weaves its tale of life, death and forgiveness as the players dance around each other. For Ernest and Sannie in particular, Couzee’s arrival heralds that magical moment of “change” so crucial to interesting storytelling. They were just children when their brother was killed, and they’ve grown up in a home where life and living have been suspended by immobility and sorrow. The parents have been mired in grief over the loss of their bright, beautiful boy, anger over the choices he made that led to his death, and deep shame over how he died — to the extent that they told everyone in their village Daniel was killed in a carjacking rather than have them know he was a freedom fighter.

This last aspect of the family dynamic is, in its way, the most damaging to Sannie and Ernest; their brother died fighting for the freedom from apartheid that’s a part of their lives, but even post-apartheid, long-held prejudices still stand. A restaurant may have to allow a black family to eat there, but that doesn’t mean the white owner and guests, or even the wait staff, like it. You can legislate moral issues, but you can’t change what’s in people’s hearts; only time will change that, and when both the oppressors and the oppressed are tied to old values, change happens slowly. But for Sannie, who brings the trio of Daniel’s friends in to seek revenge for her brother’s death, a life lesson about atonement and forgiveness lurks around the corner.

Forgiveness is a beautifully made film, with layers of meaning waiting to be discovered within its frames. Everything from the fishing nets and fishing trade that anchors a people to the safety of their village, to the sacrificial big catch that opens the film, to the ways in which the shadows of apartheid are revealed by moments of light, to the film’s heavy thematic elements of guilt, forgiveness, and once again cycling back around to guilt — all of these things play their key parts. Tonally, the sorrow and grief underlying the story are evoked by the seasonal darkness of the fishing village; Forgiveness was deliberatly shot during the winter, when the fishing village feels anchored to the earth by heavy grey clouds and near-constant rain awaiting a ray of light to break it. Forgiveness is an early film of the DV8 intiative funding South African films, and
it’s an excellent, very much underseen film that deserved a wider audience.

Saraband features Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson reprising their roles as Marianne and Johan from Bergman’s acclaimed 1973 Scenes from a Marriage; both were originally shot for television broadcast in Bergman’s native Sweden and released theatrically in the US with subtitles. Saraband derives its title from Bach’s fifth cello suite, which features prominently in the film (and, as an aside, was also used in Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, 1971).

The film, which is structured with a precison that evokes its musical namesake (10 distinct acts, bookended by a prologue and epilogue) revisits Marianne and Johan some 30 years after their divorce. Bergman opens on Marianne, addressing the viewer, randomly sorting through photographs spread on a table, until she settles on a photograph of Johan, her first husband and the father of her two children. Marianne decides it would be nice to see Johan again, and so she shows up at his remote country home, where Johan is in the midst of dealing with a family crisis of sorts involving Henrik, the son of his second marriage, and his granddaughter Karin, a cello player, who has always been taught and controlled by her father, who is a conductor.

In many ways, this film is less about Johan and Marianne than it is about the conflicted parent-child relationship between Johan and Henrik, with Marianne serving as observer and, occasionally, commentator. The rawness and rage Bergman explores in the relationship between father and son is, perhaps, Bergman’s most naked exploration through film of his own conflicts as man.

Johan’s rage toward his son, the implied love he bore and still bears for his deceased daughter-in-law and his talented granddaughter, are both in play here. Johan’s interactions with Henrik don’t imply just ill will, but outright hate; his words toward his son are jarring, harsh, to the extent that the earlier scenes between the two of them pull the audience out of the lull of the previous acts and slap us across the face with the force of Johan’s emotion.

What could drive a father to so hate a son? Surely more than just the “sticky love” once expressed by a young boy toward his scornful, rejecting father must be in play here. Johan, in his interactions with his son, becomes a monster of a father, heaping scorn and sarcasm and hatred upon Henrik so unrelentingly as to almost render him completely unsympathetic as a character.

Bergman, though, ever a master of the storytelling craft, knows exactly when to rein things in. He allows Johan’s rage — and our own conflicted feelings about him — to peak and ebb, revealing Johan, ultimately, to be both literally and symbolically a broken and naked man. The rhythm of the storytelling reflects the rhythm of Bach’s cello suite, the complexity of the sarabande echoed by the entertwined relationships.

Marianne must consider her own feelings toward Johan and her regrets about her estranged relationships with her adult daughters; Johan pays the emotional toll for his tortured relationship with Henrik; Karin, after finding the last letter from her deceased mother, finds the strength to free herself from her father’s control. All of them, in the end, forgive themselves, it not each other, for past and present wrongs. It’s a masterfully done dance of character and story, told through this carefully constructed series of emotionally charged dialogues.

Saraband stands as both a love letter to his fans — coming, as it did, some 20 years after Fanny and Alexander, and revisiting Johan and Marianne 30 years after Scenes from a Marriage — and, perhaps, could also be said to represent Bergman the man near the end of his life. Bergman explored ideas around religion, mortality and familial relationships throughout his career, and Saraband might be seen as evoking the great director wrestling with his own feelings about himself as a father, a man, and a lover — with Ullman (the mother of one of his children, fathered while she was married to another man) as Marianne guiding us through the darknesses of soul and familial relationships that Bergman explores here.

I don’t see Saraband as being quite as dark a film as some critics have called it. It’s really as much about exploring the dark corners of a life in order to shed some light of self-forgiveness into the dark spaces as it is about the anger, resentment and regret that permeate the film. And while it’s not, quite, as masterfully drawn a film as Bergman’s best work, its depth and layers of meaning, and the full circle it draws back to both Ullman and Scenes from a Marriage, mark Bergman’s last film as his final masterpiece. Highly, highly recommended.

Notes: Saraband is pretty widely available and shouldn’t be hard to find; while it’s not strictly necessary to have seen Scenes from a Marriage to appreciate Saraband, the two works bookend each other nicely, so why not make a “Bergman” night of it?

Forgiveness will be harder to track down, and is available only on Region 2 DVD (VLC Media player will play most, but not all, Region 2 DVDs if you don’t have access to a Region 2 player). Try looking for Forgiveness in your local arthouse video store; if they don’t have it, perhaps they can contact DV8 films about getting a copy (

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2 Responses to “Arthouse Redux: Themes of Forgiveness”

  1. Irma Avelino says:

    It’s hard to have a crappy evening out on the bay. There is something about fishing that without a doubt makes me smile. Thanks for the informative content.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon