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The Virgin Spring
cast: Max von Sydow, Bergitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, and Birgitta Pettersson

director: Ingmar Bergman

86 minutes (15) 1960
Tartan DVD Region '0' retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Peter Schilling
I'm not a fan of Bergman's films. Call me a philistine, but I think he's extremely overrated and insufferably pretentious. Like many filmed plays, much of his work is terminally dull stuff about failing marriages, familial tragedies, and soap opera relationships, saved only by some admittedly superb photography. The makers of spaghetti westerns seem to have parodied Bergman's close-ups of faces (perhaps hoping that Bergman's artistic 'prestige' would rub off on their more exploitative productions?), but at least the Italians' lingering shots of typically sweaty brows and killers' eyes are, more often than not, captured against vivid open landscapes instead of the boringly enclosed domestic spaces of Bergman's Swedish character studies.
   That said, I do think he's made at least two really good films. The Seventh Seal (1957), which also starred von Sydow, and this one, also set in the middle ages. In a way, The Virgin Spring (aka: Jungfruk´┐Żllan) anticipates the later cycles of American rape/revenge movies (A Clockwork Orange, Death Wish, Straw Dogs, etc) that sparked great controversy through the 1970s. Certainly, it launched the career of horror auteur Wes Craven, when he based modern shocker The Last House On The Left (1972) upon Bergman's comparatively tasteful moral fable. Craven's notoriously censor-baiting Last House is now available on DVD in USA, but still banned in Britain, and yet here's Bergman's polished but tamer original, released on disc and deemed suitable for teenage viewers.
   Inspired by a 14th century legend, The Virgin Spring tells of how pretty but vain young blonde Karin Tore (Birgitta Pettersson) travels alone through the forest to, belatedly, deliver candles for the morning mass. The daughter of a devoutly Christian farmer, she's lured from the path by vagrant goat-herders to be raped and murdered. Later, the killers (two men, one boy) arrive at the Tore family's homestead, begging for food and shelter. When they make the fatal mistake of trying to sell the dead girl's Sunday-best clothes, the parents realise what's happened to Karin, and avenge her...
   Max von Sydow is great as the charitable patriarch Herr Tore, doting on Karin, indulging her laziness. His performance is impressive throughout, but especially magnetic as the vengeful father in later scenes where he quietly inspects evidence of the men's guilt, then waits in silence until sunrise before attacking his 'guests'. However, it's the miracle finale that makes this film so powerful. When the Tores find their daughter's body, a freshwater spring bursts from the ground where she died, indicating God's accord with Tore's therapeutic proposal to build a church on the spot. What is most surprising about The Virgin Spring (and, perhaps, the source of the director's reported dissatisfaction with it, years after) is that it's an art film completely lacking in narrative ambiguity. The symbolism is so heavy-handed, and the brutal act of retribution so righteously 'proper', there can be no doubt that God exists in the world depicted here.
   DVD extras: original Academy ratio (4:3), Swedish soundtrack with English subtitles, filmographies of the star and director, stills gallery, film notes by Philip Strick, trailers for Tartan's Bergman collection.
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