One of Bergman’s quietest films, but therein lies a powerful and existential meditation on religion, vengeance and guilt.
Dir. Ingmar Bergman
1960 | Sweden | Drama | 90 mins | 1.37:1 | Swedish
M18 (passed clean) for sexual assault and some violence
Cast: Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom
Plot: In 14th-century Sweden, an innocent yet pampered teenage girl and her family’s pregnant and jealous servant set out from their farm to deliver candles to church, but only one returns from events that transpire in the woods along the way.
Awards: Won Special Mention (Cannes); Won 1 Oscar – Best Foreign Language Film & Nom. for 1 Oscar – Best Costume Design
Source: AB Svensk Filmindustri
Subject Matter: Slightly Disturbing – Sexual Assault; Vengeance: Guilt
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion DVD
First Published: 21 Oct 2016
The Virgin Spring is still best-known for inspiring The Last House on the Left (1972), the exploitative first feature by Wes Craven, yet Ingmar Bergman’s work was very much based on the 13th-century Swedish ballad ‘Per Tyrssons döttrar i Vänge’.
However, much of the film’s style was, according to Bergman, “a lousy imitation of Kurosawa”, alluding to the Japanese director’s 1950 masterpiece Rashomon, whose central incident also occurred in the woods.
Bergman’s film is, of course, less radical, but no less powerful in its portrayal of humanity through darker forces of lust and vengeance.
A family sends their only daughter off by horse to make a trip to a church to deliver some holy candles. Along the way, she is sexually assaulted.
It is a harrowing film, with the assault courting controversy (Bergman’s remarkably concise letter that responded to the moral uproar showed his maturity and integrity as an artist), and ultimately chopped up by censors when the film was released.
“You are not alone, Mareta. And God alone bears our guilt.”
The assault, though inexplicit by today’s standards, is a very important counterpoint to the violence that comes in the climax. The inherent savagery of Man is laid bare, but Bergman is also interested in Man’s desire to redeem himself from the sheer weight of guilt.
Set in a time when religion was still finding its way into the hearts and minds of the common folk, The Virgin Spring looks at the moral vacuum and existential crisis caused by past spectres of Paganism haunting the present, and the perceived incredulity of Christianity as Man’s salvation charting the future.
The Virgin Spring is also one of Bergman’s quietest films—there are long stretches with no dialogue, particularly in the climax which speaks purely through visuals.
It meditates on the frustrating notion of God’s silence, a thematic precursor to the director’s ‘Trilogy of Faith’—Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963), while also serving as the last of his early series of films centering on medieval Sweden.
It is, of course, noted for being Bergman’s first true collaboration with the legendary Sven Nyqvist, who would lens nearly all of the master’s subsequent pictures.