Many might argue that with the creative workings within him, Bergman could not help becoming a filmic artist, could not help influencing film. After all, Bergman came from the Swedish tradition of filmmaking, which evolved by putting cameras in the hands of creators and having those creators point said cameras at actors. In short, Swedish film had to teach itself. Whether or not Ingmar Bergman could help becoming an influential director, it is safe to say he could not help who he influenced. This is especially true in the case of his 1960 film Jungfrukällan, or as it is known in English: The Virgin Spring.
The Virgin Spring is a beautiful movie, a true example of film as art. The canvass may be the screen, but the medium is more than just celluloid. Bergman and cinematographer Sven Sykvist drink in the beauty of the countryside here and wonderfully frame each shot, indoors or out, for a subtle visual symmetry that at once feels masterful and effortless. Incredible acting performances are evoked from some wonderful actors, often with long stretches of time extending between each piece of dialogue. The silent moments can speak the loudest and the most here. How good was it? This multiple award winner counts two Oscars among its wins, including Best Foreign Language Film of 1960.
Yet its influence has spawned a number of tributes and imitators and tributes to and imitations of its tributes and imitators. Many of these are horror films. Most of these are in the exploitation genre. Many of these have even been banned in various countries. In some ways, this wondrous art film could be considered to be amongst the godfather of Britain's much reviled Video Nasties.
Part of this is due to the fact that, as beautiful as The Virgin Spring is, it does consist of subject matter that is quite unpleasant. What the imitators always miss here are the complexities of the characters and the depth of the story. This is about much more than the surface of the plot here.
Set in Sweden during the 14th Century, Jungfrukällan focuses on the family of landowner Töre (the exceptional Max von Sydow) and his wife Märeta (Birgitta Valberg). They have a wonderful, beautiful, virginal teenaged daughter named Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) who may be just a little too spoiled for her own good. She is much like many a spoiled rich kid, probably good at heart, but blinded to those who don't quite have it so easy. That would include Ingeri (Gunnel Lindlom), the servant girl who has turned up pregnant and has been scorned by her foster family for it. It's not too hard to see why she has developed a good bit of resentment toward Karin.
On our first day, Karin wakes up late and attempts to avoid doing her one chore of delivering candles to the church for the Virgin Mary. No one else can do it, because only a virgin is supposed to deliver them. And in spite of the fact that Karin is discovering and learning to use her femininity, she is most definitely that. Reluctantly but dutifully, Karin and Ingeri make their way through the forest.
Naturally, this would be a difficult thing for many parents to order today. Sending a beautiful, virginal girl and her pregnant friend out where all kinds of strange and unclean men might be lurking... A parent might cringe at the thought of what could happen. What could happen today is exactly the same thing that could have happened back in the fourteenth century. Hence, the cringing begins when Karin runs afoul of three bad brothers played by Axel Düberg, Tor Isedal and Ove Porath.
The Virgin Spring can be very hard to watch in places. The horrors can be made more deeply excruciating by the fact that they are filmed in the same artistic and beautiful way and directed with the same stark realism and emotional mastery. As the horrors come full circle and the journey closes its full figure eight, we see just what violence begets.
Indeed, The Virgin Spring is a Revenge drama, but should not be limited by such a term by any means. The revenge is complex, calculated and intelligent, not quick and bloody. There is a certain satisfaction in this, but not nearly as deep a satisfaction as a lesser storyteller might achieve. Bergman continues the tale, not letting the build slow until the final moment, which is both painful and breathtaking. Bergman's subtle exposure of the complexities of each person and each of their actions, reactions and the ripple effects thereof continue to reverberate throughout the film and keep the viewer thinking and asking questions long after the film has finished.
This is what so many of those that came after The Virgin Spring have failed at. This is a story that can lend itself easily to simplicity. Journey, crime, happenstance, revenge, satisfaction. That said, The Virgin Spring and the cast and crew behind it do not do anything simply or easily. This is not simply a movie. This is art. And Art, especially great Art is often imitated.
In defense of the borrowers to The Virgin Spring's themes, it is worthy of note that this film is not an original composition in and of itself. Writer Ulla Isaksson based her screenplay on an old Swedish Ballad that told this tale at around the same time this film was set. Her script is exceptional, capturing realism not by laying bare each character or situation to expose them but by showing the depth of the unknown, what is just beneath (by aaron pruitt). Does the audience see all this? No more than we would in real life. The realistic feel is there because we know that each element is much deeper than the screen we're viewing it on.
Bergman takes full advantage of this too, maintaining long runs without camera cuts, taking in the faces of each actor and letting large amounts of time move forward with no dialogue, merely the expressions and eyes of the performers speaking volumes. The dialogue that is there is remarkable. In certain cases, Bergman gives the impression of multiple conversations transpiring at one time. Some spoken, most not.
This is the same care he and Nykvist give to their framing and photography. The richness of the black and white picture is taken full advantage of here. Even in the vast appreciation of the beautiful Swedish countryside in Spring is unhampered by the fact that the lush colors of the season are not shown. Like so much of The Virgin Spring, the color is implied.
Bergman gives the real impression that he has thought of everything even in during the touching ending, which is perfectly choreographed and composed. Five Stars out of Five for Jungfrukällan, a widely imitated, but neither exceeded nor even approached, art film. Bergman passed away on July 30, 2007, less than four years after his official retirement. Fellow film great Michelangelo Antonioni died the same day. They both left more behind than most of us could even imagine. Careers are finite, lives come and go. Art springs eternal.
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