[This post is part of a series to identify and catch up with various blind spots in my cinematic knowledge, choosing twelve films to watch in 2012. See the series intro for the rest of my picks]
A couple of years ago, I was watching The Virgin Spring at one of LA’s best repertory cinemas, the New Beverly, and left almost exactly halfway through. Now, don’t get the wrong idea. I almost never walk out of films anyway, and it was INCREDIBLY hard to leave this one, especially since it was almost exactly at the climactic scene. I had come to see the first film of the double feature they were showing (Revanche), but knew I’d have to leave the program early in order to get to Cinefamily (the OTHER great LA repertory cinema) for their Czech New Wave series, showing films rarely screened on 35mm in the US. I stayed as long as I could watching
I should never have waited so long, and yet, it is entirely worth the wait. The film enjoys a healthy reputation (hence it feeling like a major blind spot), and I was a bit afraid that between that and my own self-hyping of it based on my experience with the first half, I’d be disappointed by the film in the end. Such was vehemently not the case. Bergman films are often something of a tough sell with me – there are a few I love unequivocally (Persona, Smiles of a Summer Night), but the ones that seem more quintessentially “Bergman” to me, rather than the anomalous light comedy or experimental film, are much more of a struggle for me. With its story of rape and revenge, I expected The Virgin Spring to be in the same vein – somber and bleak, with an edge of existential angst. What I got was something far more terrible and sublime than I expected.
Though The Virgin Spring is not a part of Bergman’s unofficial “faith” trilogy (kicked off the following year with Through a Glass Darkly), it is still very concerned with faith – a concern laid out from the very beginning as the film sets up a contrast between wild-eyed, unkempt servant girl Ingeri who is praying to Odin and the lord of the manor who, along with his wife, kneel before a crucifix. Ingeri is pregnant and unwed, and she is quickly contrasted with the lord’s daughter Karin, a sunny and virginal blonde who’s preparing to trek through the woods taking candles to the church. I don’t really get the whole purpose of this, being unfamiliar with Swedish medieval tradition, but it doesn’t really matter – it’s basically a Macguffin. When Ingeri temporarily leaves her along on the way, Karin falls in with some seemingly nice shepherds who, well, turn out to have ulterior motives.
It’s not much of a spoiler at this point to reveal that they rape Karin – that’s basically the logline of the film, and it happens only about half-way through. Still, even when you know it’s coming, it’s kind of a shock to the system, simply because Bergman is so forthright and frank about it. He doesn’t shy away from the rape, instead holding his camera unwaveringly, not letting us look away. It’s still 1960, so it’s not what I’d call physically explicit, but there’s absolutely no question about what’s happening, and the beauty and, dare I say it, tastefulness of the shot almost makes the content of the shot even more of a punch to the gut. This is actually the point where I had to leave the New Beverly screening of the film. I did rewatch the whole thing before writing this, though, and the scene was just as horrific and just as gut-wrenching as before.
There’s a lot more in store, though, and the next little section almost plays like a suspense thriller as the three shepherds (the youngest is just a boy and didn’t participate in the rape) wind up at Karin’s manor, apparently not realizing where they are. Despite being worried about Karin’s long absence, the lord and his lady offer the three food and shelter, like any magnanimous landowner should – but we know who they are and what they’ve done, so the intensity doesn’t let up for us. There’s a simply chilling scene when one of the men offers Karin’s cloak to her mother as a gift. But what the film comes down to is whether vengeance is worth it, or if forgiveness is possible – either of rapists or those who take revenge on them. Perhaps the reason The Virgin Spring isn’t part of the Faith Trilogy (aside from its more poetic, less chamber-drama style) is that it shows hope at the end, hope of forgiveness and community, while the Faith Trilogy is about crises of faith in the face of divine silence.
There is way too much in this film in terms of symbolism, character comparisons and contrasts, and religious themes to unpack in one blog post, or even after one viewing of the film. This is definitely one I’ll be coming back to again and again. There are obvious contrasts, like the ones I mentioned between Odin and Christ, or between Ingeri and Karin, or between crime and revenge, etc. But they’re not black and white, despite the dark/light distinction suggested by Ingeri and Karin’s respective hair colors. Karin is the innocent here, but she’s far from perfect – she’s kind of a spoiled brat, whining to her mother to let her sleep later and wear fancy clothes. She’s a flirt, leading on the same man (probably) who got Ingeri pregnant. She manipulates her father into letting her do whatever she wants, basically, and blames everyone else for her own faults rather than take responsibility. But through it all, her very innocence and sheltered existence in her perhaps overly-loving family is what gets her in trouble. Meanwhile, Ingeri is world-wise and wary, but superstitious – she prays to the Norse gods and stops off at a witchdoctor type guy, which also contributes to Karin’s predicament due to Ingeri’s absence.
The question of blame comes up again and again. Though it’s easy to blame the two men who actually commit the rape, and certainly they’re not exempt from the father’s wrath, seemingly everybody blames themselves for what happened. The mother blames herself for sheltering Karin too much, the father blames God for letting it happen but then takes responsibility for his own retaliatory actions, Ingeri blames herself for praying to Odin for Karin’s downfall. In fact, it’s quite the contrast to Karin’s own blithe attempts to blame everyone ELSE for everything. But Bergman ends with a cleansing spring, a mark of forgiveness and new birth coming out of this horror.
Ugly things happen in Bergman films, and this is one of the ugliest, but he is never an ugly filmmaker. As I hinted above, even the rape scene is shot with tremendously beautiful framing and cinematography, and that’s true throughout the film. Every shot is composed carefully, with every element in the frame there for a specific visual or symbolic purpose. A friend writing about this film pointed out that Max von Sydow “looks absolutely monumental, like he was hollowed out and carved from wood, a living breathing relic of medieval art,” and that’s such a perfect description that I had to steal it. Bergman is known for the sometimes slow pacing of his films, and here his willingness to simply let Sydow and others BE in the frame, their power coming simply from their imaged existence, is wonderous and utterly moving. Often I find Bergman austere, and there’s definitely that here, but this may be the first time that I understand Bergman’s essential humanity. He may be unflinching in what he shows, and he may use music and other manipulative techniques sparingly, but he cares deeply, achingly for these people. And he made me feel the same way, despite their flaws…or perhaps because of them.