By Stephanie Zacharek
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Between the onset of Greta Garbo's tuberculosis and the victory over Russell Crowe's schizophrenia, moviegoers have endured a relentless barrage of disease -- and they have relished almost every tearjerking, Kleenex-wringing minute of it. Who but a soulless curmudgeon could resist the emotion (no matter how manufactured) of Ali McGraw's final moments in Love Story? Didn't we delight in watching DeNiro emerge from decades of catatonia in Awakenings, then indulge a shocked whisper (Glad that wasn't me!) when he slid back into the abyss? Who but the stone-hearted were not moved as Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon struggled to save their dying son in Lorenzo's Oil?
All disease movies manipulate us in one degree or another -- the three-hanky brigade rarely objects -- but A Song for Martin, made in Sweden by the estimable Bille August, shows uncommon restraint and subtlety in its twin portraits of a famous composer-conductor vanishing into the darkness of Alzheimer's disease and of his beloved violinist wife, who must learn to stop raging against the dying of the light. Where Hollywood usually yanks our chains, August seduces us. Here's just what you might expect from the director of The House of the Spirits, Jerusalem and Les Miserables: Nordic cool in melodramatic circumstances.
Alzheimer's is, of course, a terrible scourge. Unpredictable and incurable, it first emerges as sporadic absentmindedness, then shrinks and disables the cerebral cortex until the victim loses his very being and those around him no longer recognize the person they once knew and loved. In the moving -- if increasingly difficult to watch -- story of Martin (Sven Walter) and Barbara (Viveka Seldahl), August subjects the audience to all the grim specifics of the disease, including furious dementia, loss of bodily control and the killing isolation that culminates in a virtual disappearance of the self. At the same time, he dramatizes the agonizing passages friends and family must go through: disbelief, resentment, despair and, for the lucky ones, acceptance of the inevitable.
The filmmaker's method is merciless (so are the frequently unreadable, white-on-white subtitles), but he's by no means unfeeling. Our sense of loss is curiously heightened by Martin's very mode of detachment, and the performances by Seldahl and Walter are so heartfelt and beautifully detailed that even if you couldn't abide, say, the cancer-stricken athletes of Brian's Song and Bang the Drum Slowly, you may find yourself fascinated by this ill-fated relationship. Here we have two people -- a charming tyrant and a dedicated musician with a taste for pleasure -- who discover each other on the far side of middle age, shock their former spouses and grown children with the spectacle of their passion and thrive briefly in a dream world of artistic collaboration and healthy lust. Then, just as we're getting to know them, they start to lose everything when Martin suddenly can't remember where he's put the manuscript for his new opera or the fact that he's already eaten dinner. Seldahl and Walter were a married couple off screen as well as on, and that intensifies their dramatic chemistry here. Seldahl, one of Sweden's most honored actresses, died shortly after filming was completed, from a case of cancer no one knew about, and that deepens the film's ironic tragedy.
There can be no happy ending on the screen, either -- no stirring Nobel Prize ceremony, no magic oil to restore a life -- but Bille August and his cast find a bit of hard-won triumph where they can. Working from a novel by the late Ulla Isaksson (who wrote scripts for two Ingmar Bergman films: Brink of Life and The Virgin Spring), the director has wisely transformed Isaksson's original couple from writers into musicians (no doubt because symphony orchestras always sound better on screen than clacking typewriters), and he has retained all the telling details of their humanity -- the ugly as well as the beautiful. By the time Barbara gets through her ordeal and comes to accept her husband's fate, and her own, there are no dry eyes in the house. But Bille August and company have earned every falling tear with this searing vision of a short-circuited life and a quenched spirit that somehow manage to survive in the memories of loved ones and in the immutability of art. Disease movies have their detractors as well as their champions: This one transcends the old, oft-abused genre with heart-wrenching grace.
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