VIRGIN SPRING, THE (Jungfrukällan)

(director: Ingmar Bergman; screenwriter: Ulla Isaksson/based on a medieval Swedish legend; cinematographer: Sven Nykvist; editor: Oscar Rosander; music: Erik Nordgren; cast: Max von Sydow (Herr Töre), Birgitta Valberg (Fru Mareta), Gunnel Lindblom (Ingeri ), Birgitta Pettersson (Karin), Avel Duberg (The Thin Man), Tor Isedal (The Mute), Ove Porath (goatherd boy witness); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Ingmar Bergman/Allan Ekelund; The Criterion Collection; 1960-Sweden-in Swedish and German with English subtitles)

“Masterfully directed by Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A symbolically laden and at times brutal (but never sensationalized) period drama masterfully directed by Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman (“Wild Strawberries”/”Through a Glass Darkly”/”The Seventh Seal”) and written by Ulla Isaksson (one of the few films the director hasn’t written). It’s inspired by a medieval Swedish ballad. Bergman won his first Oscar for Best Foreign Language film of 1960 for this allegorical tale of innocence, rape and revenge; it’s filled with questions about religious faith, God and superstition. It’s the first time the great cinematographer Sven Nykvist hooks up with Bergman and his luminous black-and-white photography is just breathtaking. The story is set in 14th-century Sweden.

The fair-haired 15-year-old virgin Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) is the coddled and only surviving child of feudal landowner Töre (Max von Sydow) and his wife Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), who are both solemn followers of Jesus Christ. Karin’s ordered on Easter morning by her stern father to bring the sacred Virgin Mary candles to church and wear the special fancy dress that has been set aside for the occasion. Karin is accompanied by her jealous dark haired unmarried pregnant half-sister Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), who just that morning invoked a vengeful pagan curse on Karin through the Norse god Odin. The country at the time was in a battle between paganism and Christianity as to which force would dominate the Swedish landscape, and as the film indicates it soon became lights out for the pagans. Ingeri talks Karin to go on the journey alone through the dark primordial forest, where she encounters two uncivilized goat herdsmen (Axel Düberg and Tor Isedal) who rape and slay her while their innocent little brother (Ove Porath) looks on. A hiding Ingeri watches from the safety of cover as Karin is assaulted and slain, but does nothing to help. The herdsmen flee the scene and later show up at Töre’s farmhouse and are given food and shelter in an act of Christian charity, with the father unaware of their brutal crime. However Karin’s mother discovers that the herdsmen have her daughter’s blood-stained clothes in their possession, and lets her husband know this. He then gets revenge, as he plans a terrible death for all of them as they sleep–including throwing the innocent child against a wall. When the deed is done, the devout Christian father begins to question if there is a God and if there is one, why does he allow such cruelties. When visiting the forest spot where his daughter was slain, suddenly a virgin spring bubbles from the ground from the same spot, and he takes this natural phenomenon as a sign from above that there is a God and builds a church on that spot as penance.

It’s an austere film that leaves a feeling of some hope at the end, as the religious couple witness a miracle and their renewed Christian belief gives them the possibility of redemption while the stepdaughter is torn over her guilt and will have to live with her sins for the rest of her life. The film is coldly intellectual and the violence lingers on even though it wasn’t graphic, as it has an unpleasant chilling effect because no warmth ever comes forth to rescue it from its heavy metaphorical (light and dark) messages even though it’s pleasing as a thoughtful film.

The Virgin Spring was a serious arthouse film that was influential to many future filmmakers, in direct and indirect ways. They used rape/revenge storylines as never before. Strangely enough horror film maven Wes Craven’s directorial debut of 1972 for the cheesy shocker, without any moral dilemmas in its rape/revenge tale, “The Last House on the Left,” was also influenced by this film, and might even hold up better today than the more serious and dogmatic Bergman film. In any case, Bergman’s influence ranged in films of various degrees of quality and his place in cinema lore as a great director is certainly secure.

REVIEWED ON 12/23/2006 GRADE: A-