A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Virgin Spring (Ingmar Bergman, 1960)

The Virgin Spring was probably the first Bergman film I ever saw, and it made a powerful impression that stuck with me for 50-some years. I think that's one reason why I have mixed feelings about it today. In outline, it's a simple tale based on a 13th-century Swedish ballad, in which a young girl on her way to church is raped and murdered, but from the ground where the crime took place, a spring of fresh water erupts miraculously. But watching it today I see a more complex story, full of moral ambiguities. The girl, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), is not such a paragon as I remembered: She is spoiled and prideful, trying to sleep late and avoid the task of taking the candles to the church. She may not even be as innocent as she is thought to be: The servant, Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), who accompanies her says the reason she wants to sleep late is that she was out the previous night flirting with a boy. Karin's mother, Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), is on the one hand a religious fanatic given to self-torture, and on the other an indulgent parent unwilling to discipline her daughter. Karin's father, Töre (Max von Sydow), is divided between the Christian faith he has adopted and a furious desire to wreak revenge on the rapist-murderers. After he has killed the two men and the boy who accompanied them, he expresses remorse but also blames God for his daughter's fate. He vows to build a church on the site, and the spring gushes forth, but as a miracle it seems like a somewhat anticlimactic response to the horror that has gone before. (It's not like the site, where running water is copious, even needs another spring.) Bergman for once is working from a screenplay he didn't write: It's by Ulla Isaksson, which may be why the film is poised so ambiguously between Christian affirmation and Bergman's usual bleak alienation. It is, however, one of Bergman's most beautifully accomplished films, joining him with the cinematographer Sven Nykvist, with whom he had worked only once before (seven years earlier on Sawdust and Tinsel), and with whom he would form one of the great working partnerships in film history. In its evocation of medieval narrative and meticulous re-creation of a milieu (the production designer is P.A. Lundgren), it's superb. But as a film from one of the great modern directors it seems oddly anachronistic and insincere.

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