06 November 2010
The Virgin Spring, An Example of Bergman's Touch
It is the latter category in which the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman excelled. As evidence I submit The Virgin Spring (1960) which I watched today for the first time.
Towards the end of the film Max Van Sydow's character, Tore speaks to the heavens saying: "You see it, God, you see it. The innocent child's death and my revenge. You allowed it. I don't understand you. Yet now I beg your forgiveness. I know no other way to be reconciled with my own hands. I know no other way to live."
It takes extraordinary courage to make a film that asks profound questions about existence, especially when it goes in with no preconceptions about what the answers are. Bergman specialized in such films. The Seventh Seal (1957) being just one other example.
In Virgin Spring, God is the main character. We never, of course, see the supreme being and he or she is only seldom referenced, but its God's movie all the way.
The Virgin Spring is the story of a wealthy family in rural 14th century Sweden whose teenage daughter is raped and murdered by goat herders while journeying to the nearest church. The synopsis seems hardly likely to encourage people to see the film, but its done pretty well for its self since being released 50 years ago, including recognition at the Oscars, Cannes and the Golden Globes.
What has drawn viewers and critical acclaim to the film undoubtedly has to do with Bergman's effective way of telling the story and the questions that story asks about, among other things, faith. Lubitsch had a "touch" with his films that made them clever, witty and appealing. Bergman similarly had a touch. One that made the kind of unsavory fare served in The Virgin Spring palatable. Characters were multi dimensional irrespective of how much screen time they had. The worst of the lot were always clearly human and despite their actions, tolerable to watch. Protagonists were flawed (i.e. human) and sentiment was nowhere to be seen.
In Virgin Spring we are invited to watch. The camera allows us to get aquatinted with characters but not intimate. Medium shots with sparing use of close ups keep the film a viewing experience but an engrossing one. It is thus easier to form our own judgments about events and people. The victim here has a half sister who is culpable in her fate. She is at once sympathetic and abhorrent. The vengeful father is more complex that most films would allow him to be too. He is both unwavering in his convictions and doubtful after their outcomes.
Bergman was a complete filmmaker in that he had no major weaknesses. This overall competence allowed him to take on the heaviest of material and not only not make a mess of it but make something quite special.
There is a wonderful simplicity to The Virgin Spring. This makes it all the easier to feel God's presence in the story. We need not be believers ourselves, just needing to accept the fact that a higher power is very much at work in the minds of the characters.
Faith is a heavy cross to bear and can serve as a wonderful reward to the believer. It is also tested mightily throughout a lifetime. It is further complicated by the unique relationship with and perception of their higher power that each believer brings to this most special relationship.
The Virgin Spring can seem a difficult movie to watch. But it's a beautifully told story that rewards us with a golden opportunity to consider some of the central issues of life. I think it so cool that you can get that out of movie.