If there’s one film in Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre that remains mythical, it’s his poetic The Virgin Spring.
The screenplay, which was adapted by Ulla Isaksson from a 13th century Swedish ballad, tells the tragic origin of a lonely church in the countryside. The Virgin Spring begins humbly, in near total darkness, with a servant of the house (Gunnel Lindblom) turning embers into flames with her breath.
What follows is the tragic, mesmerizing tale of how a fervently-pious family is robbed of their daughter, their virtue, and their simple way of life by a small cadre of herdsmen. But the story, compelling as it may be, is only a vehicle for striking images and ideas. The Virgin Spring is a powerful exploration of spiritualism, occultism, tragedy, evilness, and, of course, the irresistibility of revenge.
The Virgin Spring conjures and maintains a stark poeticism. This is largely due to the film’s patient cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. Coils of smoke, thick tangles of bracken, and bowls of milky soup draw the viewer further in until the reality of the film and the reality of the slack-jawed viewer become two frayed ends of the same cloth.
Each scene flows into the next with solemnity. The Virgin Spring appears as real as your mental image of a stream, or a shack, or a horse, or a gold dress. There is no flaunting of technique, no cajoling of the viewer—I watch this film and I see the chewing of stale bread, the grunting of sleepy men, the endless ministrations of a heel-toe mother.
Even in scenes of motion, there is an intimate, processional idiom. Together, Bergman and Nykvist craft a tabula rasa; The Virgin Spring is not an extrapolation of ideas, but a blank pith, a reverse path to where the breadcrumbs first began to fall.
Despite all this immersive realism, or maybe because of it, the film remains somewhat aloof. There is perhaps only one scene in which we assume the gaze of Ingeri (Lindblom) peering from the brambles. In all other scenes, the viewer is resigned to a seat of distant yet holistic observation. We are positioned across from the characters, always looking at them and rarely with them. This stylistic choice heightens the dramatic irony of the story.
There is a scene in this film where Töre (Max von Sydow), the father of the house, uproots with his bare hands a lone tree that sits atop a hill. Physically formidable, yes, but layered over this herculean tug and thrust is the haunting vision of a man combating many natures: one carnal, one spiritual, one vernal. Like many other scenes in this film, it remains etched in my mind.
The Virgin Spring is a stream of shadows and light, of truths obscured and lies revealed.