“The Virgin Spring” – Andrew Guarini

Even for a filmmaker as consistently cynical as Sweden’s pioneer Ingmar Berman, 1960’s The Virgin Spring is a short, poetic composition of comforting serenity in terrifying contrast to most sudden bouts of brutality. It’s a tough story to describe without wrongfully exposing what unfolds in the slowly building, but surely devastating 89 minutes but the basic outline would be that a young girl named Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), daughter of well off Christians in medieval Sweden has been appointed “light child” and because of her pure virginity must carry candles to the church. The path to the church is a long one, where Karin is accompanied by her “dark” child of a sister Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), though on the way Ingeri sets out on her own. From here, The Virgin Spring enters into its horrifying conflict, in which an event shakes everything Karin, Ingeri and their parents know and believe. Everything in their structured world is suddenly reversed and saying anything more about the progression from here would be a crime.

 

As someone who is often torn between two conclusions on Bergman films (pretty great to feeling pretty great indifference), I find The Virgin Spring to be, in my eyes, one of his most even films in terms of not overloading in any certain section. This is a script (one that surprisingly, is not written by Bergman but Ulla Isaksson from a 13th century Swedish ballad) that is flawlessly focused around a build up evoking an overwhelming sense of dread because of how peacefully the film presents the parents (Max von Sydow and Brigitta Valberg) and their interaction with the basically divine, holy daughter of Karin. As Karin and Ingeri trek across the forest, Bergman uses montage to craft a tranquil passing of time; endless trees, large clouds overhead, peaceful waters running past the horses hooves and people who they come across on their journey who seem legitimately surprised to see such a special kind of young person decorated in such a prestigious, one of a kind outfit. Karin is the personification of hope which makes the eventual turn around even more painfully consequential and tragic.

 

The balance between the beauty and evil is handled with an undeniable grace by Mr. Bergman veering into visual showmanship that is still disturbing by today’s standard and especially by that of 1960 when audiences were surely squirming especially violently in their theater seats. But somehow the darker subject matter, whether distinctly presented or implied, never distracts from the film’s eventual culminations and commentary on the perils of belief, religion, revenge and what your actions might be when your most fundamental characteristics and ideals are wholly inverted.

 

Bergman has put together many immortal scenes (silhouettes in The Seventh Seal, split faces in Persona) and The Virgin Spring is no different; from beginning to end the environment within and outside of the frame is helping to accentuate the characters’ situation and the path of the story. The careful shadows inside the house, the flames reflecting off the faces in close-up, the beauty of nature’s every component in contrast to whatever darkness it might hide away from the naked eye…it all juxtaposes to question: in a world looking and feeling at one moment so perfect and sure, how can another moment be marred by a feeling that certain events would have you believe that there cannot possibly be any higher power protecting us? The ending has to be one of the most achingly simultaneous moments of redemption and despair I have ever seen.

 

The performances, as in even the misfires of Bergman’s filmography, are uniformly excellent. The acting through wounded faces and eyes here is tremendous considering conversations are more often than not are sparse in this seemingly predictable world (apart from Ingeri’s bastard child which has condemned her into a lifetime of disdain by her parents and companions) as if everything is working off an unspoken set of expectations under the surface. This seems to be Bergman’s startling message; in a life composed of religious optimism that everything will happen as it should, the very idea that something unpredicted can occur and destroy this is something so unintended that the thought of dealing in a way of pacifism is increasingly unlikely. The shift of specific characters on paper would seem to need a heap of dialogue and pronouncements of transition, but the actors in The Virgin Spring are so capable of conveying, without need for words, the unearthing of an unspoken, chilling change.

 

A few scenes seem a bit out of place and hinder the focus of the picture, such Ingeri’s short interaction with a shady fellow in the woods that seems a bit too much of a change from one scene to another that it temporarily disrupts the flow. But apart from these momentary distractions, The Virgin Spring is a transfixing, methodically paced picture that leads us, hand tightly gripped into a look at a world shattered into a million, never the same pieces. To even imagine the lives of the characters after the screen fades to black is the most haunting aspect of all, and for a film to floor you with what you can only dream up in your head, this is an infinitely commendable masterpiece.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

-Andrew Guarini

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