Smoke rises from the fire in a hearth until it reaches the window that's been opened for it. Before it escapes into the vast airy freedom that it will enjoy, it seems to tremble with fear. It is drawn outside anyway and then it finds itself in a better place.
It is like that for people also, says the character in The Virgin Spring (1960, written by Ulla Isaksson, directed by Ingmar Bergman) who sees in the smoke's example the salvation offered to all who believe in Christianity's Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He shares the unyielding faith of another character who says, in what will become harsh irony, "God is more forgiving than you think."
Belief drives the family in The Virgin Spring and so it drives the story of a father exacting revenge after his daughter is raped and killed. The film is a moving meditation on how religious faith can be tested by brutality and still be strong enough to save a man pushed to committing violence from revelling in it as others do. Ingmar Bergman's assured direction and forceful performances by Max von Sydow and other actors power a compelling film that offers no easy answers but masterfully illuminates important questions in ways that are memorable and, perhaps, inspiring. Some viewers might find the movie's Christian preaching heavy-handed but it reflects the characters. They believe strongly, sometimes desperately.
Based on a 14th-century Swedish legend, The Virgin Spring starts with a young woman who was a foundling taken in by a Christian family. Now that she is grown, the family treats her with disdain because she is unmarried but pregnant. Jealous of the family's spoiled younger daughter, the woman prays to her god, Odin, to punish the family that has raised her. Eventually she will regret her prayer and will plead to be punished, even killed.
Her anguish is fueled by guilt that she is unable to stop the violence that leaves the family's daughter brutalized and dead. They were separated on their way to church and the woman finds the girl again only after two vicious strangers find her first. The daughter senses no danger and shares her food with them. She prays over the meal, but the men do not share her faith and are not touched by her devotion to it. They attack her.
The assault is protracted and harrowing to watch, the discomfort heightened by unnerving silence. The girl weeps noiselessly, the men say nothing to her and there is no music in the background. The killers' sick grins make the scene even more chilling and it is a relief when -- finally -- it ends. A terrified boy of about 8 or 10 tries to bury the girl's body and his inadequate act of mercy is both heartfelt and heartbreaking.
The killers make their way to the home of the parents of the girl they have killed, where they take hospitality from the parents without knowing who they are. The mother and father are anxious that their daughter has not returned and they are unaware of her fate. They offer the men shelter against the harsh winter night that is falling. It is only when the strangers unwittingly show that they now possess some of the daughter's intricate handmade clothes that the parents know what has befallen them.
The father takes vengeance. He humbles himself before God before he does so and then prays for forgiveness after. Water appears suddenly where there was none. A hydrologist could explain it, but the family needs it to be a miracle. And so it is a miracle, proof that God accepts the father's penance.
There are other miracles in Bergman's movie, the kind that last in memory and might linger in the soul as well.
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Mar 17, 2012
Jun 22, 2012 03:59 AM UTC
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Derived from a medieval ballad, THE VIRGIN SPRING was director Ingmar Bergman's first film to win an Academy Award. The movie represents a return to simpler themes for Bergman after the philosophical complexity of THE SEVENTH SEAL and WILD STRAWBERRIES. On its most basic level, it's the story of violent crime violently avenged, but it can also be interpreted as a religious allegory on Christian forgiveness. A young girl, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), is raped and killed by two herdsman on her way to church. Her foster sister, played by Gunnel Lindblom, witnesses the crime and reports back to Karin's parents (Max von Sydow and Birgitta Valberg) shortly after the perpetrators arrive at the couple's home seeking shelter for the night, unaware of their hosts' identity. Karin's grief-stricken father decides to take brutal revenge on his daughter's murderers. THE VIRGIN SPRING represents Bergman's first full collaboration with director of photography Sven Nykvist, who had previously worked as a co-director of p...