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The Criterion Collection presents
Karin: Why are you always talking about the Devil?
DVD ReviewThere is a tendency for the films of Ingmar Bergman to be thought of as talky and deeply psychological. While The Virgin Spring does indeed have its psychological elements, it also features more violent action than just about any other picture in his canon. At the same time, the focus is on the uneasy coexistence of Christianity and paganism in 13th-century Sweden. Based on a ballad of that era by Ulla Isaksson, it's both one of the more unusual and accessible of Bergman's pictures.
Töre (Max von Sydow) is a lord who, with his wife Märeta (Birgitta Valberg) is a recent convert to Christianity, with different degrees of devotion. Their teenage daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) is both devout but also somewhat vain and flighty. When she insists on wearing an elaborate dress to take candles on an overland journey to the local church, she attracts the attention of several herdsmen (Axel Dberg and Tor Isedal) and their younger broher (Ove Porath). They rape and murder Karin, stealing her garb, under the observant eyes of her adopted sister, Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), a pagan worshipper of Woden, who brought a curse down upon Karin. But the herdsmen make the mistake of coming to Töre's home and attempting to sell Karin's dress, triggering an outraged paroxysm of vengeance.
If that storyline seems somewhat familiar to exploitation fans, that may be because it was adapted by Wes Craven for his breakout film, the classic horror The Last House on the Left. Where that film takes glory in its brutality, however, the vengeance of Tre here is more methodical. Bergman's concern is not so much the revenge itself, but Tre's reversion from a merciful and peaceful view Christianity to a more violent and vengeful paganism, and then the struggle to reconcile the two religious motivations within his heart. The religious element is the prime motivator of the action. None of this would have happened if the Christian family had in fact been less sinful; Karin's vanity is palpable, while the devout Mreta is indulgent to Karin's selfishness. At the same time, the entire family is cruel to the pagan Ingeri, who is pregnant (though it's unclear by whom), which motivates her both bringing the wrath of Woden down upon Karin and her abandonment of the girl to the herdsmen and her fate. Bergman doesn't preach about this, but it's quite apparent from the way events are presented.
Von Sydow is reliably formidable as the family patriarch, providing him with a careless power that fuels a determined and maniacal desire for retribution, carried out with ritualistic fury. Valberg's role is a bit thankless, but it's performed serviceably. Pettersson gives Karin a vacuousness that works well for the character and her blithe disregard for her moral requirements and own safety. As unlikeable as Karin is, her death sequence, with her eyelids gently fluttering, is deeply moving. The real standout is Lindblom's Ingeri, embittered and angry, yet tormented with guilt at what she has done. In particular, she is quite fine in the disturbing encounter that she has with a troll-like priest of Woden (Axel Slangus) on the way to Karin's doom. Although she is determined to wreak havoc on Karin, she is at the same time repulsed by the priest and his conduct, forming a transitional basis for a possible conversion.
But it's not just an interior drama of theological conflict, but also a remarkably violent venture for Bergman. The rape sequence in particular (censored on US release but restored here) is viciously brutal and quite appropriate for the characters of the herdsmen. Even more disturbing is the watching approval of their young brother, an ostensible innocent who will clearly become a monster like the rest of them. This was the last of Bergman's historical dramas, but it is particularly well-realized. One feels immersed in a medieval world that is in flux, focused on religion in everyday activities. The title spring speaks of purification and reconciliation, a symbol of a future that resolves the conflict inherent in religious life of the period. The Oscar-winning film can be enjoyed on several levels from revenge drama to symbolic essay on cultural change. It is, however, quite unforgettable.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: The black-and-white photography is stunningly presented, with extensive greyscale and amazing amounts of detail visible even in deep shadow. The restoration is sparkling, with hardly a speckle to be seen. The only shortcoming is some mild aliasing on fine patterns in a few shots, but those would be very difficult to render in any event. It's one of the nicest transfers yet from Criterion.
Image Transfer Grade: A+
Audio Transfer Review: The 1.0 Swedish track suffers from a fair amount of hiss and crackle throughout. It's not too distracting for the most part, and the music by Erik Nordgren has a decent amount of range though of course no low bass.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Birgitta Steene
Layers Switch: 00h:45m:26s
On the disc, Ang Lee provides an introduction (7m:04s) to the picture and the profound effect that it had on his own filmmaking (though rights expenses preclude inclusion of any examples). Lindblom and Pettersson provide reollections in a set of interviews (20m:32s). Professor and author Birgitta Steene provides a thorough and informative commentary, though it is a bit drily presented. It has so much valuable material that it's quite worth listening to. In particular, she gives attention to the highly negative reception from Swedish critics that triggered the director's change to modern settings exclusively. Finally, Bergman himself is heard in an audio presentation (40m:24s) to the American Film Institute, most of which is devoted to his work generally, rather than this film in particular. However, it's always nice to hear the creator's own thoughts and fans of the director will be pleased at its inclusion.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsA stunning depiction of 13th-century Sweden and the conflict of religions, with a particularly fine transfer and plenty of valuable extras. Highly recommended.
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