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The Virgin Spring (1960)


Persona
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The link on our Top 100 page can be changed to this now that we're beginning a thread on the actual film.

A&F Bergman links: Faith Trilogy (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence) (1961-1963); Persona (1966), Cries and Whispers (1972), Scenes from a Marriage (1973), Fanny & Alexander (1983). Peter mentions an abundance of other Bergman related threads Here.

The Virgin Spring stars Max von Sydow, who seems to Bergman what Klaus Kinski is to Herzog, except that I never heard about a fist fight between the two or one shooting (or was it stabbing?) the other down in the Amazon; and Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, and Birgitta Pettersson, who were all at one point quite exclusively working with Bergman.

N.W. Douglas posted a wonderful blurb Here in our Top 100, where he describes it as, "a simple story... [but] a stark meditation on vengeance, mercy, and faith." He warns that it's a "quiet film that slowly builds to an explosion of violence."

I can't believe my fortunate timing lately with the Top 100 and my desire to catch up with it. My screening of Lourdes led me to The Song of Bernadette, which I loved. Cries and Whispers lead me to more Bergman (this). There are huge similarities between The Song of Bernadette and The Virgin Spring, but they feel like polar opposites of the same expression.

In The Song of Bernadette the spring is proof of a miracle, a wonder for people to marvel at and find healing in; it is a place where God turns the ordinary into a beautiful, blessed event. In The Virgin Spring, which feels like it somehow must riff on that Lourdes story, the spring represents forgiveness, mercy, God's presence. But it also represents the presence of a God who is with you in your darkest, most hopeless hour. The spring itself is the miracle here -- there is no other miracle that's going to take place.

In the DVDs introduction Ang Lee points out that when von Sydow's character prays at the end of the film, it isn't rendered the way you might often find such a prayer in film. The camera is above him, looking at his back, as he first bows by a stream, head hung in shame, and then stands up and confronts God face to face, looking away from us. It's a God's-Eye shot if there ever was one. It feels like, I'm Here. I'm With You. I'm listening. I am Here in the Pain. You might not even know exactly where I am in proximity to you, but I'm listening, I'm watching, I'm touching, I'm Here!

The date on the film is interesting, too -- 1960, a year before the Silence Trilogy. The ending here feels nowhere near having God fall silent. And with other quotes I've found from Bergman that I've shared here before (some in the Silent Trilogy thread, I think), I do believe that this is a very misunderstood period in Bergman's life, one that we can read a whole lot into from our more hopeful -- spiritual -- end, but that more agnostic writers and lovers of film will read into in light of the context they desire. Honestly, after many of the quotes we've dug out, I still think he leaned more in our direction in this period.

This is a film to ponder for quite some time, I think. There are messages here that one shouldn't fully understand in just one night, in just one sitting. I am looking forward to growing with it over time. For now I will say that I feel this is a rich work, worth probing as one probes the book of Job or Ecclesiastes.

I do have a couple of questions -- I'll probably post again tomorrow when I've let it sink in a bit.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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Man, the commentary on the Criterion disc is educational, insightful, delightful. It is by Birgitta Steene, professor of Scandinavian literature at the University of Washington. I guess she also has a book out from 2005, "Ingmar Bergman: A Reference Guide." I want to check that out.

Here is a Link to some words I wrote up after the film, but this time it is more about the experience of being in this community than it is about the film itself.

Here are the questions I had:

1. The toad in the sandwich. When Karin begins to feel that she is in a dangerous situation, she throws down the sandwich and Ingeri's toad pops out. Is this symbolic in any way? It has to be. I understand from the commentary that toad were seen as develish in the pagan days of the old beliefs. Is it perhaps symbolic that great evil is now entering into the situation, and the scene? Is there something more?

2. Also, right about the time she is feeling this evil mount, she takes one of the goats by the horns and says, "These look like Simon of Snollsta's marks." Unless I am missing something, I am understanding that she has realized the goat is stolen and that these men are a lot more evil than she originally thought?

3. Didn't the brothers know where they were when they showed up at Karin's house? How could they not? They offer clothes to the mom that give away their evil deed, but even before it was said that the young maiden had journeyed off and still had not come home. How could they not have known where they were?

Edited by Persona

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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So how did this get voted into the Top 100 if no one here has seen it?

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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I saw it once, on the big screen in January 2005, and I remember liking it, but I couldn't say much about it in any detail right now.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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1. The toad in the sandwich. When Karin begins to feel that she is in a dangerous situation, she throws down the sandwich and Ingeri's toad pops out. Is this symbolic in any way? It has to be. I understand from the commentary that toad were seen as develish in the pagan days of the old beliefs. Is it perhaps symbolic that great evil is now entering into the situation, and the scene? Is there something more?

They way it's played in the scene, it seems as though the toad is a confirmation of sorts for the herdsmen to go ahead and attack Karin; it doesn't repulse them so much as steel their resolve. Though it raises the question: if they looked on the toad as a demonic symbol and associated Karin with it, did they for a moment think they were doing something righteous by attacking someone hiding an evil creature? Again, as the scene is, I doubt it. They look at the toad almost like they've been given approval to go ahead and rape her.

Although, seeing as how the film takes place at the transition between paganism and Christianity, and is very much about the tension between the two, could the toad popping out be a symbol of Christianity failing to truly take root in the land? The outward appearance (the bread, which Karin and Tore thank God for both its heavenly and bodily forms) hides the inner nature, the real nature still holding to the old religion, which sort of describes Tore - unlike his wife, he's reluctant to convert completely until the old ways have failed to bring him any peace. He enforces the new religious rules exactly (making Karin, the only virgin on the farm, take the candles to Mass), while failing to offer a truly Christian response, such as mercy, to those who have wronged him and his family (especially the innocent boy caught up with his evil brothers). Conversely, Ingeri also follows her pagan religion closely, but doing so brings about events that cause her to feel remorse for her actions and her thoughts towards Karin. If she was seriously devoted to Odin, she would approve of Karin's death, insomuch as it waylaid the religious practices of another, rival faith. That, and Odin answered her prayers by removing Karin from her life. But she gains no comfort from this. She is not a true follower. The toad in the bread is a neat summary of these conditions, as well as the broader condition of the whole region.

And going back to the toad being a signal; as the brothers have heard Karin thank God for her bread and salvation, the reveal of the toad seems to tell them that this bread really isn't blessed, that her God really isn't protecting her, and that she's completely vulnerable. Christianity, it seems, is doomed to fail in this land, at least by human means. All of which makes the spring's appearance that much more stunning; a direct act of God reaching out to his people.

Sidenote: also consider how the innocent boy, wracked with guilt, tries to eat the bread but can't stomach it because Karin's body lies untended nearby. He goes and feebly tries to cover her with dirt. Think there's some "let any who partake of communion examine themselves first" sort of stuff going on there?

2. Also, right about the time she is feeling this evil mount, she takes one of the goats by the horns and says, "These look like Simon of Snollsta's marks." Unless I am missing something, I am understanding that she has realized the goat is stolen and that these men are a lot more evil than she originally thought?

I'd agree with that.

3. Didn't the brothers know where they were when they showed up at Karin's house? How could they not? They offer clothes to the mom that give away their evil deed, but even before it was said that the young maiden had journeyed off and still had not come home. How could they not have known where they were?

I think it's clear that only the youngest brother realizes, or fears, that they are at Karin's house (as seen in his reaction to Tore's prayer; if you recall the picnic, he was also the only brother to refrain from eating until Karin's prayer was finished, for whatever that's worth). The older ones don't have guilty consciences, so they're clueless.

Edited by N.W. Douglas
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Awesome response, thank you! Much to mull over here. I'm sure I'll be revisiting The Virgin Spring real soon.

I love this in particular, and all that went into it:

If she was seriously devoted to Odin, she would approve of Karin's death, insomuch as it waylaid the religious practices of another, rival faith. That, and Odin answered her prayers by removing Karin from her life. But she gains no comfort from this. She is not a true follower. The toad in the bread is a neat summary of these conditions, as well as the broader condition of the whole region.

And going back to the toad being a signal; as the brothers have heard Karin thank God for her bread and salvation, the reveal of the toad seems to tell them that this bread really isn't blessed, that her God really isn't protecting her, and that she's completely vulnerable. Christianity, it seems, is doomed to fail in this land, at least by human means. All of which makes the spring's appearance that much more stunning; a direct act of God reaching out to his people.

And I hadn't really thought of the boy in those terms. But you're right! Perhaps that's why he spilled his meal at the dinner table?

Good stuff.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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  • 10 months later...

Here is a Link to some words I wrote up after the film ...

I gotta say man, there are times, once in a while, when you get pretty eloquent.

- Due to this, I figured I might as well knock out The Virgin Spring while I still had the chance. But now that I have, I'll just have to buy the DVD anyhow. Damn. If it wasn't for the fact that they were all speaking in Swedish with English subtitles, I might have assumed this was one of Shakespeare's tragedies that somehow had managed to slip by me. It belongs in the top films ever made meditating upon vengeance. It belongs on your shelf right next to Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. It belongs with Macbeth and King Lear.

- Max von Sydow is a powerful actor. After seeing this and The Seventh Seal both in the matter of one week's time, my respect for the guy has quadrupled. Bergman knew what he was doing by repeatedly casting this guy. He's just a nice old/gruff kindly father for the first half of the film, and then he suddenly turns into a giant for the ending. It actually looks like he grows taller. And yet, once he turns into a one man killing machine, he's still more vulnerable than Eastwood's Will Munny is (who has basically just finally sunken back into his old self). Sydow's Tore is a good, prayerful, and family loving man. So it seems worse for him to do what he does once he flies into a rage - (his wife even half motions to stop him towards the end). And while he flies into a rage (with provocation), he still later holds himself morally accountable for all his actions.

- Persona wrote:

When I encounter such hardship and sin in film, I try to move past the harsh content itself and dig in to how the story is told, how the image is shown, what the director is trying to offer, whether the nature of the telling rings true. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it's just hell observed, with little else to offer. Such a film I have no interest in ... But some of these hard-to-watch "struggle" films wade through the travesty in order to express a higher point -- a higher morality that's made through suggestion, even in viewing the most evil extremes of the human condition. The Virgin Spring is one such film ...

I haven't seen or heard of many films that focus on the question of why God allows evil to happen. This seems to be one of them. I'm going to have to discuss this more. It's hard to say whether the film offers any answers to the question, but it does certainly seem to be answering something or other.

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I'm glad I got to see this while it's still on Netflix instant viewing. The presence of the spring is such a beautiful picture of redemption and forgiveness.

What struck me the most in the film is the scene when Tore examines his hands after he executes his vengeance. He is forced to realize that he did the act with his own hands, and he takes full responsibility. In most revenge films, the vengeance is performed using some kind of weapon: a gun, a knife, a sword. This use of an intermediary device distances the individual from the physical act. Whereas in this film, Tore has no choice but to reckon that his hands have shed blood.

At the end of the film, after the prayer, Tore raises his hands toward God, and promises God that he will build a church. So his hands, which had been the instrument of his vengeance, now will be used in his penance. A powerful example of how seeds of redemption and hope can spring out of great tragedy.

Edited by Crow
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