Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Vengeance is mine: The Virgin Spring

Today I contemplated, as I sometimes do, that unique paradox of the human condition: the thirst for revenge. Yes, that all-consuming desire to get even with those who wrong us, juxtaposed against the futility – perhaps the folly? – of seizing our own justice. Most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, can acknowledge that at least once in our lives we harbored a need to strike back savagely against someone who had committed an unspeakable and incomprehensible act of cruelty against us. The desire to settle the score wraps itself around the spinal cord, creeps upward, and penetrates subconscious thought with all manner of delicious scenarios that result in the excruciating pain and suffering of the evil person who has caused us harm. Yes. And yet, how we answer that call for vengeance is a measure of character that only each individual can demonstrate through his reaction to those who trespass against him. Do we choose to forgive or do we fight to the death? It’s really one or the other. Philosophical method suggests there is no middle ground. And if we choose the satisfaction of blood, that ol’ Biblical eye for an eye, what then? What have we gained? Where is God when we so desperately need someone to adjudicate our sins before we make them worse?

This is the theme that Swedish director Ingmar Bergman explores in one of his greatest works, Jungfrukällan, known in this country as The Virgin Spring (1960). I offer a review of the stunning Criterion edition of this film, below. Ah, but please note: here be spoilers that reveal significant plot points.

“You saw it, God. You saw it. The innocent child's death and my revenge. You allowed it. I don't understand you. Yet now I beg your forgiveness.” ~ Töre (Max von Sydow)

Criterion presents a sumptuous edition of master director Ingmar Bergman's harrowing tale of revenge and redemption in 14th century Sweden. One of the most visually beautiful of all black-and-white films, The Virgin Spring won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1960. The picture remains a powerful parable of good and evil, of faith lost and recovered. Adapted from a folk ballad, it is a study in contrasts, but not extremes. Set in a society struggling with the transition to Christianity from Norse paganism and a feudal economy, the film depicts savage violence that begets savage retribution. But there is also hope, and light and shadow, dappled in shades of gray both symbolic and literal, as with the stunning chiaroscuro cinematography—one of many quiet wonders in this rich, deeply moving cinematic experience that challenges, provokes and ultimately rewards the careful viewer.

A bit of plot:

Medieval Sweden. A devoutly Christian farming family begins their morning ritual with prayer. The family patriarch Töre (longtime Bergman collaborator Max Von Sydow) and his wife Märeta (Birgitta Valberg) intone their prayers before joining the servants for breakfast at the family table. Their pagan foster daughter Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom, The Seventh Seal), who is unwed and pregnant, despises the couple's biological daughter Karin. As played by Birgitta Pettersson, Karin is a spoiled and foolish girl who would rather spend all night at the village dance and sleep through the next morning, than join her hardworking family for breakfast.

Töre directs his wife to rouse Karin and get her ready for the long journey to the village church where Karin must deliver the family's votive candles. Religious custom dictates that only a virgin may offer candles to the Virgin Mary. Karin insists on wearing her finest embroidered dress. Ingeri accompanies her on the journey and they debate many aspects of life, although Karin is mostly frivolous in her thoughts. Disgusted with the naïve and vain girl, Ingeri lingers at a hermit's shack, leaving Karin to continue her journey alone on horseback. Later, Karin encounters two corrupt goatherds and their young brother wandering the woods with their flock. Frightened by their intense stares, she offers to share her simple lunch with the men, but their tone changes abruptly. Drooling over the young woman, licking their tongues over rotting black teeth, the men rape and murder her, then strip the valuable clothes from her body as a light snow falls silently on her corpse in the cold forest. Ingeri arrives on this obscene tableau. She grabs a rock to strike the attackers, but she is paralyzed; unable or unwilling to fight.

Now desperate for food and shelter, the goatherds make their way back along the path Karin had traveled. In a righteous twist of fate, the men arrive at the farm of Töre, seeking refuge from the cold. They are oblivious to their mistake. Later, when the herdsmen offer to sell a beautiful, embroidered dress to Karin's mother, the shock of realization creases the woman's pale face as she examines the garment made by her own hands. She knows her daughter is dead. Trembling, she confronts her husband with this discovery.

Swift and terrible retribution comes to the goat herders at dawn.

As Töre grieves the death of his only child—railing against the unknowable motives of God—his foster daughter Ingeri abandons her pagan beliefs, cleansing her spirit with a symbolic Baptism in the forest.

The plot description above, revealing though it may be, does not begin to cover the layers of symbolism and meaning with which Bergman constructed this disturbing film. By turns deeply religious and blasphemous, his characters whiplash across extreme emotional reactions brought on by unbearable trauma. Faith, compassion, and inner strength are as thematically critical to The Virgin Spring as human cruelty and revenge. But again: This is a film of jagged contrasts delivered with impeccable talent from all involved.

Bergman was reportedly influenced by director Akira Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai) when filming Jungfrukällan (literally, The Virgin Spring in Swedish), especially in the long passages of silence where characters say more with their expressions than words could convey. He delivers an uncompromising presentation of psychological motives driving people to acts of which they would not have believed themselves capable.

The cinematography by famed director of photography Sven Nykvist is achingly beautiful, and by itself sufficient reason to watch and own this film. Scholars could conduct a seminar on lighting and cinematography technique using this film as text. A frequent Bergman collaborator (he also shot Persona, The Serpent's Egg, and Fanny and Alexander), during his long career Nykvist also framed exquisitely photographed films for Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and Woody Allen (Crimes and Misdemeanors), whose own admiration for Bergman has been well documented.

Disc extras include a beautifully illustrated 28-page booklet of essays and notes on the making of the film and its cultural impact. The booklet includes the complete text of the 13th-century ballad on which the film is based. Special features also include an introduction by director Ang Lee (The Ice Storm), a commentary track by a Bergman scholar, and an improved English subtitle translation (which is to be preferred over the optional English-dubbed audio track).

Video and audio are peerless.

Caveat lector: Despite far more graphic atrocities depicted in contemporary film, the rape and murder of young Karin still has the capacity to shock and devastate. It is a desolating, unforgettable moment that will lease permanent space in a viewer's mind. Töre's animalistic revenge for his daughter is less disturbing, but only by a matter of degrees.

This is a poignant and unflinching art film, shamelessly copied and degenerated 13 years later as the sleazy exploitation horror movie Last House on the Left, directed by Wes Craven. In a film that uses extreme contrast as a stylistic device, the distinctions between The Virgin Spring and Last House on the Left could not be more profound. The former is the work of a cinematic visionary conveying a message of hope, faith, and human frailty in the face of helplessness and rage. The latter is the work of cretins with cameras whose pornographic violence exists as an endurance test for people so jaded they feel nothing unless bludgeoned with cruelty for its own sake. It is mentioned here solely in the interest of a thorough review.

I continue to be impressed with the cineastes at the Criterion Collection. They are, quite simply, the best in the business, delivering time and again the absolute reference standard in important classic and contemporary films on DVD. This is a company that truly wields the power of the DVD format for presenting major cinema. Criterion always includes generous supplemental features that give insight and context into great works of art, of which The Virgin Spring is a pristine example. This disc comes highly recommended as an addition to any serious film collection. It is essential viewing.

An emotionally devastating experience, The Virgin Spring elicits a deep appreciation of life through its depiction of senseless death and the futility of revenge. Bergman, who died in July 2007, urges his audience to cherish the time we do have, even in the face of incomprehensible cruelty.

That sweet sentiment softens a harsh reminder of the fleeting hours ahead.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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