The Virgin Spring

In 1972, Wes Craven began his long career as a horror filmmaker with The Last House On The Left, an uncredited adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring. While Last House was controversial at the time, it passed without comment how little Craven had to do to bring Bergman's film into the realm of the horrific. Based on an old Swedish ballad, The Virgin Spring is unsettlingly direct in depicting an innocent girl's rape and murder, and her father's subsequent bloody revenge on her killers. It's a simple story, but with real horror in its implications. The father, intensely played by Max von Sydow, can wash the blood off his hands, but he can't keep the doubt away from his heart. Even the miracle of the title is ambiguous. It's a Bergman movie; that's how his miracles work.

The film takes place in a medieval Sweden that hasn't quite given up paganism for Christianity. Van Sydow's house has a crucifix on its wall, but his pregnant foster daughter (Gunnel Lindblom) spends her mornings praying to Odin out of resentment over her favored foster sister Birgitta Pettersson. Accompanying Pettersson on a trip to the village church, Lindblom is shamed by her secret wishes when a group of herdsmen attack Pettersson, leaving her body in the open. Later, after taking shelter in von Sydow's house, one of the herdsmen makes the mistake of trying to sell Pettersson's dress to her mother (Birgitta Valberg), a social faux pas that sends von Sydow into a violent rage.

Later dismissed by Bergman as "an aberration" (although it won him an Oscar), The Virgin Spring drew new audiences and pushed away old fans, like many of Bergman's Swedish champions and supporters in the French New Wave. It isn't hard to see why it divided viewers, since it seems divided against itself. Von Sydow questions his faith in God, but when he finds what looks like proof of God's existence, it doesn't clear up any of his questions. Maybe Bergman wrote the movie off because he was on the verge of giving up on God altogether, but today, its tangle of doubt, religion, loss, revenge, and regret seems as timely as ever.

Key features: An informed commentary by Bergman scholar Birgitta Steene and an intro by Ang Lee, who recalls watching it twice in a row on his first viewing when he was 18.

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