#1 in my Ranking of Bergman’s Best Films.
This has long been my favorite Bergman, and now that I’m in the middle of the thirty-nine films of the Criterion boxset, I think I can begin to understand why.
Bergman is an intellectual director, exploring ideas, themes, and people in convincing and compelling ways, but he’s rarely a visceral director of experience. We do get moments of compelling truth in Scenes from a Marriage as two people spit vitriol at each other. We do get moments of involving contemplation around the existence of God in Winter Light. However it is in The Virgin Spring that we see Bergman capture an intellectual idea and package it with more spectacle-like filmmaking.
One common feature of most of Bergman’s films is that they violate the “rule” that you must show not tell. His characters talk about what they feel and how they view the world, and the conflicts that arise come from the disparities of those professed values with hidden internal values and values held by other people. In The Virgin Spring, the rule of show don’t tell gets followed. It probably has more to do with the novelistic background of the movie’s screenwriter, Ulla Isaksson, compared to the theatrical background of Bergman.
The story is based on an old Swedish folk tale about a young virgin who is raped and killed on her way to church and the vengeance her father brings down upon those that did the crime. We get all of that action in vivid (though non-graphic) strokes that scandalized critics at the time. The violence is extremely effective even with only the smallest show of blood. There’s an emotional effect in those scenes of violence that is as strong as Johan and Marianne screaming at each other at the nadir of their relationship in Scenes from a Marriage, but the violence here is physical and visceral. It seems to dig just a bit deeper.
The standouts of that violence made the contemporary New York Times critic say that the movie was a thin morality tale below Bergman’s talents, but there’s actually so much more. What is there just isn’t spoken about, but it lingers in the background of everything. The conflict between the paganism of Odin and the monotheism of the new Christianity isn’t a stand-in for a simplistic good vs. evil battle. Instead, there are interesting shades within each character that drive the ideas even further. The father, Tore, obviously clings to his old pagan ways and has been dragged into the new Christianity by his wife Mareta. Their daughter, Karin, is beautiful and eager to look her best for her mission to deliver candles to the church, but she is also haughty, entitled, and manipulates her parents with ease. Ingeri, the pregnant Odin worshiper the family has taken in as a ward, prays for Karin’s defilement but confesses to Tore after the crime and begs for the punishment Tore will mete out to the perpetrators.
Where this movie stands out in Bergman’s filmography most for me is the thematic thrust of the film. The Virgin Spring came out in 1960, just a few years after the existential The Seventh Seal and right before the Silence Trilogy, and yet the thematic point isn’t a form of rejection of religion. In fact, the titular spring is an embrace of the idea that man’s concept of God, as manifested by the Church, is correct. It’s a natural extension of the story he was trying to tell, but also an artifact of the fact that he didn’t actually write the movie. God is still silent in the face of the violence placed upon the innocent Karin, but the existence of the spring that shoots from where her lifeless head had laid for a day, opening up immediately after Tore had promised to build a church of mortar and stone on the spot, is God’s communication. He speaks more in that than in anything else Bergman made.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 4/4