Sunday, December 27, 2009

[review] Virgin Spring

why ... ?

One of Ingmar Bergman's pieces. It won the 1961 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. I guess that makes it a "classic". (A term I find annoying in the film context.) Mr.Gopher enjoyed listening to the euphonious language of his beloved 2nd home (which is not here). I - of course - read the subtitles. It is an omnipresent curiosity when watching foreign films, how well translated the subtitles are. One would think, given this production of the film is only a few years old, and the almost universal knowledge of English in Sweden, that one could rely absolutely on the translation. Well ... the title page states it is based upon a myth/ballad/song from the 14th Century. Or is that the 13th Century? Mr.Gopher told me the English & Swedish had the same number (13), but the counting wasn't the same. Sigh ... now, if only my befuddlement stopped there.

I am not one who bemoans the confusion of foreign films, wringing my hands in embarrassment, wanting to seem chic or cosmopolitan by opining on the "meaning" of the work. There is an introduction to the film by Ang Lee. He stated (for some reason, I thought this person was a woman?) that this was one of the most influential films he saw as a younger man. He went on to discuss the film's content in terms of the basic elements of human life. That the film delved into what makes us human. An interview with the two main actresses revealed similar views.

Set in 13th/14th Century Sweden, this is the explanatory myth of the creation of the Virgin Spring. (A well-spring, that is, not the season) A young spoiled girl (virgin) is sent to bring a bunch of candles to the distant church; a young serf pregnant girl (not-virgin) goes with her. Not-virgin is jealous and despises the virgin. For some utterly inexplicable reason, she abruptly claims to be afraid of the forest, and stays behind at a small hut. Running away from the owner's lecherous advances, she runs after the virgin. The (idiotically) naive virgin meets up with 3 really decrepit goat herders. They induce (seduce?) her to stop on her travels, and have lunch with them. She realizes the goats belong to her neighbors. They attack, rape, kill her and then steal her expensive clothing. All of which occurs within the sight of the not-virgin, who can't bring herself to either run away or defend the other girl. The villains stop for the night to seek shelter at - of course - the dead girl's family's home. Offering her dress as payment for the generosity, they are revealed, and killed by the enraged father.

After finding the daughter, the parents & the rest of the still-living cast mourn. The father swears to God that, to atone for something, he will raise a church on this very spot. Moving the virgin's corpse, a clear fresh spring flows forth from the ground. This is definitely the sort of tale one expects to explain the presence of some small spring in the middle of a church.

I was so hung up on the inexplicable behavior of the pregnant not-virgin, that it really interfered with the rest of the movie. Did she just refuse to go forward out of real fear? Out of sloth, to avoid working/traveling? Did she passively watch the violence because she hated the virgin & wanted to see her get 'taken down a notch'? After doing all of this, why did she return to the farmstead, and then fess up to the father, rather than lying about her indirect complicity? Why did the father just pat her on the head and send her off to help him prepare for battle (i.e., killing the villains)?

Yes, there were interpersonal conflicts: the mother (spoiling the daughter, their only remaining child) vs. the father (who argues she should be trained properly, yet seems to pointedly exclude the mother from his own relationship with the daughter). The staff vs. the not-virgin about her amoral pregnancy-generating behavior. The bizarre little boy (the 3rd goat herder), who is unclearly attached to the older two: is he their brother?

I found the choice of B&W to be particularly interesting for two reasons, one rather mundane and the other not. There is an appealing stark simplicity to shooting in B&W outdoors, which avoids any 'noir' overtones. Ansel Adams in motion pictures. Yet, due to the B/W, the characters' appearance seemed overly stereotypical. The father is visually the utter archetype of a viking hero; the nationalistic artists from the 30s would have loved him as the Aryan uber-mench. (picture #1 here, a strikingly young Max von Sydow). The daughter is a stereotype of what Americans see as the Young Swedish Girl. Yet the not-virgin and the villains were so much antitheses, that it seemed ridiculous. Dark, heavy features, shot in shadows, what I assumed was an overly heavy-handed effort for the director to say "These are the Bad People". Given what I've heard of Bergman, it is difficult to believe that such an obvious choice was accidental. Yet, if it wasn't, I don't understand what its purpose is.

In the SCA, there are genres of story telling. One of them is the kind which is told by Fighters about their exploits on the Field of Battle, where one is required to start the tale: "No shit, there we were ..." There is also the type of tale, which need not be personal, and often is a re-telling of an historical epic/saga/poem. Around the Dark Ages, these tales were rather morbid. These are referred to as "Every One Dies". Virgin Spring is not quite an 'everyone dies' tale, but it has the distinct feel of one. I expected the mother to throw herself into the river to drown herself in sorrow (Admittedly, as an excessively devout Catholic who's really into self-penance, she likely wouldn't have committed the unforgivable sin of suicide.), and then have the father build the church and die with the last stone being laid, while the tenants looked on in servile acceptance.

I would mention that I really enjoyed the appearance of the movie. It would definitely entice me to visit Sweden for that sort of views. The costuming, et al., was really good, and pretty accurate for the time/place. I then discovered it was nominated for Best Costuming (B&W).

So, yes, there's plenty to discuss in an artsy "ain't I cosmopolitan" way ... but I still didn't like the movie.

Gopher Rating:
See it if someone else is paying.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw Bergman's "Virgin Spring" years ago. I remember being somewhat puzzled by it, but liking it overall. If I remember, I took the story to be based on a true event, that the girl had really been raped and killed, that the father had built the church, etc. Bergman had this thing about religion vs. spirituality, and how each is manifested in life. Then how they relate to morality. So, sometimes his movies are morality tales. I suspect that's what he was going for with VS, and wanted the archetypes to support it. His B/W movies are gorgeous. He knew how to film in it to the best effect with shadow and light. I haven't seen a Bergman film in ages -- the last one was "Sarabande." There are certain ones that I go back to every once in a while -- "The Hour of the Wolf" (a fave), "Cries and Whispers," "The Passion of Anna." I hated "Persona," and yet many see it as his best film. I don't think he had a "best" film -- each is so unique and "best" in its own way.