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THE VIRGIN SPRING

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Max von Sydow, Birgitta Pettersson, Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitta Valberg
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Audio: Swedish monaural 1.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, full-screen 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Studio: Criterion
Features: Introduction by Ang Lee, commentary, Bergman seminar, interviews, essays, ballad
Length: 89 minutes
Release Date: January 24, 2006

So lovely an apple orchard I know,
A maiden with virtues so dear,
Her hair like spun gold does flow,
Her eyes like the heavens so clear.

Film *** ½

By the late 1950's, Sweden's greatest director of the day, Ingmar Bergman, had achieved international fame on a level unmatched by any previous Scandinavian director.  With the successes of his films The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, Bergman's name had become synonymous with truly mature cinema.  His films until then regularly challenged audiences on the psychological and spiritual level that would come to define the quintessential art-house experience.  Unbelievably, Bergman's best work was still to come.

One of Ingmar Bergman's early 1960's films, Jungfrukällen (The Virgin Spring, 1960), re-united him with Max von Sydow, previously immortalized as the chess-playing knight opposite Death in The Seventh Seal.  The Virgin Spring was a redemptive tale of the struggles of a rural family in medieval times.  As with The Seventh Seal, The Virgin Spring was also set in historic times but furthermore had its basis in an actual thirteenth-century folk ballad.

While The Virgin Spring was set during a tumultuous period of Sweden history with the decline of paganism and the rise of Christianity, it was stylistically quite similar to the historical films of the best Japanese directors of the day, notably Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi.  However, The Virgin Spring would actually represent the last of Bergman's films from his "classical" period.  Starting after this film, Bergman would begin to develop a more uniquely personal style, one that did not draw from the influence of other directors.  More importantly, this film would mark the first of many successful collaborations between Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist, whose naturalistic photography was well-suited for The Virgin Spring and complemented the direction that Bergman's films would soon take.

In The Virgin Spring, Bergman contrasts the idyllic nature of farm work with the anguish and emotional self-doubt that splinter a family following a series of personal tragedies.  Rural existence in medieval Europe is, after all, besieged by the seemingly ever-present dangers of roguery, disease, and remorseless anarchy.

As the film opens, already we see the fragmentation of the family beginning through the character of Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom).  A raven-haired wild-child adopted by the family and impregnated by an as-yet unidentified assailant, Ingeri finds herself the target of family and servant hostility instead of the nurturing love the expectant mother needs.  Perhaps once carefree, Ingeri is now full of rage and feels unloved, unwanted.  Having been victimized by the carnal desires of men, Ingeri is now all too aware of the dangerous ways of her world.

In contrast, the family's true daughter, Karin, clad in her silken fabrics, is a golden-haired virgin, the archetypal pure-hearted maiden.  Her parents dolt upon her and easily forgive her any minor transgression.  Karin is, in a sense, beloved and slightly spoiled, and in her sheltered environment is sadly oblivious to the inherent treacheries of her world until too late. 

Töre (Max von Sydow) is the patriarch of the family, a strong laborer of the lands and a loving father.  He is more tolerant of both daughters, although his wife, Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), a devout follower of the new Christian faith, looks scornfully upon Ingeri as one fallen.  Sadly, such was the usual fate for "amoral" women during this age of history, justified or not.

One day, Karin is awake from her morning slumber by her mother to fulfill a task for the local church.  The honorable duty of delivering candles for the morning services has been granted to Karin, as traditionally the candles are to be transported by a virgin maiden.  Karin's parents joyously see her off, and Ingeri, by Karin's insistence, is allowed to come along as well.  Together, both daughters ride off for the day-long trek along the wooded path that eventually leads to the church.  It is a journey, however, with a poignant conclusion, and neither sister is fated to reach the holy grounds of their destination.  The subsequent events which transpire in the forest, far from the reach of protective hands, trigger a wave of anger and retribution in the family which further threaten to tear it apart.

In a sense, the events of The Virgin Spring may suggest a symbolic diatribe against the sins of avarice, pride, and lust, or even more, reflective of an allegory on the struggle between paganism and Catholicism for the people's faith.  This tension between pagan beliefs and Christianity is in fact a recurring leitmotif throughout the film.  While one might imagine that paganism is portrayed in a savage, bestial manner, as in its principle representation in Ingeri (or an old man of the forest who participates in ritual sacrifice), the Christian faith is not presented in an entirely kind light, either.  Consider, for instance, the cool, callous manner of the distant yet devout wife or even the violent actions of the husband Töre, caught between the symbols, icons, and rites of paganism and the new Christian faith of the land.  Thus, medieval Sweden is seemingly less an enlightened world from its fledgling devotion to Christianity and more a dark world still in transformation, where differing beliefs co-exist inharmoniously and have an equal impact upon the outcome of the people's lives, regardless of one's faith.

Ingeri, for instance, prays secretly to the Norse god Odin.  In one early scene, she means to deliver a toad to Karin's hands; the toad is itself a pagan symbol of death as well as representative of Ingeri's own misplaced jealousy-fueled rage against her more beautiful and fanciful foster sister.  In fact, Ingeri is so jealous that she beseeches the god Odin to cast a horrible fate upon her own foster sister.

Töre's devotion to the new Christian faith is less sincere than that his wife.  He mouths the prayers of worship yet harbors little regard for their spiritual worth.  In one pivotal late scene, Töre even expresses dismay that a caring Christian God could watch idly while such horrible acts are committed before His eyes.  Would such a God of grace allow a virtuous innocent to be destroyed while He watched indifferently?  Such impassivity or affinity for violence might seem more the domain of the old Norse Gods than a kinder God of the Old Testament.  In another scene of anger, Töre wrestles a birch tree completely out of the ground; it is a symbolic struggle between man and a seemingly impassionate world as well as Töre's own expression of his tenuous regard for Christian faith over the more familiar, if crueler, actions of pagan rites.

Even the film's symbol of virtuous purity, Karin, is not entirely without fault.  As the innocent maiden chosen for the honor of bringing candles to church, she is somewhat vain and more overly concerned with her appearance and her own comfort over those of other people or with how her own actions (or inactions) might affect others.

The film's choice of religious devotion, either to the violent but dying pagan Gods of yore or a newer but perhaps uncaring Christian God, may seem unbearably pessimistic.  But The Virgin Spring does concludes with a sense of hope, that the ultimate need for atonement for one's sins and the desire to seek (or merit) forgiveness for one's transgressions will ultimately bring enlightened progress to the denizens of medieval Sweden.  Caught between the instinctive or animalistic extemporization of paganism versus faith to a Christian path towards true spiritual cleansing, which path must Tore and his family ultimately accept?

The film's final sequence reveals the nature of the film's title and provides some redemption and ceremonial cleansing.  In the end, Ingeri bathes her face in cleansing waters, and Töre himself asks the God of the Christian faith for forgiveness for his sins.  Perhaps, it is a true moment of catharsis and spiritual awareness, with faith in the new religion finally surpassing loyalty to the old Gods.

Interestingly, Bergman himself was less concerned with the religious aspects of the film and more interested in the basic tale of a medieval maiden waylaid by lawless elements in the forest and the ensuing acts of vengeance committed by her wrathful father.  The psychological tension and emotional anguish portrayed in The Virgin Spring would be themes heavily explored in Bergman's consequent films.  At this stage in his career, Bergman was still drawing away from the historical and religious themes of his "classical" period for the more interpersonal relationships of later classics such as Persona and Cries and Whispers.

Unlike many of Bergman's most famous films, The Virgin Spring is neither autobiographical nor particularly convoluted.  However, it does touch upon psychological themes and the sexual subtext common to many Bergman films.  While these themes are explored in greater depth in the director's other films, The Virgin Spring, with its (relatively) conventional narrative, provides a friendly introduction for mainstream audiences to the emotional and intellectual complexity of the cinema of Ingmar Bergman.

Video *** ½

The Virgin Spring is presented in its original black & white, full-frame aspect ratio.  The transfer was made from the original camera negative.  The picture quality is crystal clear and very sharp with superb delineation of black and white images.  There are only a few minor instances of aging from emulsion scuffing or scratches.

The film is also presented in an uncut version that restores portions of a pivotal scene originally censored in the United States due to content.  A brief letter from Ingmar Bergman addressing this important scene can be found in the booklet accompanying this disc.

Audio ***

Sound quality is adequate but nothing extraordinary, given the nature of the film.  Dialogue is in Swedish with optional English subtitles.

Features *** ½

Birgitta Steene, a professor of Scandinavian literature and a Bergman scholar, provides a scholarly treatment for the film on the disc's audio commentary.  Her remarks are scripted but should be of keen interest to students of Bergman's films and admirers of The Virgin Spring in particular, as the remarks cover the film's history and various themes.

Viewers might also choose to watch the introduction (7 min.) by director Ang Lee to the film.  Lee is a great admirer of The Virgin Spring and describes aspects of the film he found most influential for him.

Also on-disc is a new interview with Gunnel Lindblom and Birgitta Pettersson (20 min.).  Both actresses reminisce about their experiences working on the film as well as their relationship with Ingrid Bergman as a director and mentor.

For those who wish to hear Bergman himself, there are extensive English audio segments featuring the director in a lecture session from 1975 for the American Film Institute.  Bergman speaks for forty minutes on all matters of cinematic subjects including theater and film, working with actors, music, and camera work.  For the director's admirers, this is quite a seminal lecture and well worth hearing.

Lastly, there is a 28-page booklet included with this disc.  Inside the booklet are several essays as well as numerous stills from the movie itself.  The Peter Cowie essay, "Bergman in Transition," is a generally absorbing discussion about the film's background and its religious undercurrent.  The essay is well worth reading and serves as a fine companion piece to the Birgitta Steene commentary.

Ulla Isaksson, the film's screenwriter, offers her own thoughts in the essay "Some Reflections on The Virgin Spring." She describes the romantic ballad that influenced the film's miracle play structure (this ballad, Töres dotter i Vänge, is also included in English translation in this booklet).  Interestingly, the ballad is associated with an actual spring and church in the Kärna churchyard in Östergötland, Sweden, calling to question how much of the ballad is legend and how much is true.  Today, the spring is remains a popular pilgrimage site thanks to the purported healing properties of its waters.

BONUS TRIVIA:  The Virgin Spring inspired, of all things, the cult classic horror film The Last House on the Left!

Summary:

That this superbly-directed and Academy Award-winning film (Best Foreign Film) should nevertheless be considered merely a minor Bergman film is quite an astounding testimony to the remarkable quality of all Ingmar Bergman films in general.  The Virgin Spring remains one of the director's more accessible efforts and as such should be a highly suitable film for first-time Bergman viewers.

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