Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Virgin Spring. (1959) Ingmar Bergman

Much of the current phase in my recent writing has to do with enthusiasm for a community I've been a part of for over a decade --
in one way, shape, or form. In sifting through many of the
A&F Top 100 films I'm unfamiliar with, I've had several encounters with what can only be described as "World Shattering Cinema."

And I've only just begun.

I had seen fifty-three of the 100 at the time the current list was published, with the goal of revisiting nineteen I've seen and the remaining forty-seven I haven't. In the past few months I've locked into six new films from the list, three of which are masterpieces. (Stroszek, The Song of Bernadette, and now The Virgin Spring.)

It's also been a euphoric high finding film connections that circle around and lead me right back to the list. At the European Union Film Festival this year I missed what I most wanted to see, Lourdes, but kept it tucked in the back of my brain for future reference. When I found it later on a one-week run in Chicago, I made certain to gun it to the north side for a screening. It was a good film, the kind that challenges you to think, balancing the delicacies of nature and science vs. God and his problematic miracles. But what Lourdes ultimately did was to lead me to The Song of Bernadette, the origin of the Lourdes story, a Hollywood Oscar-buzzed heart-warmer from 1943, that I simply fell in love with. It also happens to be in our Top 100 films.

Coincidentally, I also just blurbed Ingmar Bergman's classic, Cries and Whispers (Here), a film I've seen and loved many times over the past few years. Blurbing that led me once again back to the Top 100, desiring the remaining Bergman films from the list I haven't seen. And of course that now brings me to this incredible, tense Swedish-language film, The Virgin Spring -- which has an ending directly related to Lourdes and The Song of Bernadette. I won't spoil anything here, in fact I won't even review or react to it as much as simply note it here on the blog, but know this -- the word "spring" is certainly in the title for a reason. Thus, the comparison to the miraculous is made -- the circle is somewhat complete.

The Virgin Spring is a wonderful film about rape and torture and then a horrifying, brutal revenge on same said rapists and torturers. Of course, that last sentence is said a bit in jest -- but honestly, content has never been a problem for me in a linear-driven narrative film. Rapes happen in real life. Murder happens in real life. Revenge happens in real life. We hate it, but it's real.

When I encounter such hardship and sin in film, I try to move past the harsh content itself and dig in to how the story is told, how the image is shown, what the director is trying to offer, whether the nature of the telling rings true. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it's just hell observed, with little else to offer. Such a film I have no interest in. (OK, except for a well-made horror film, one of my weaknesses, of which the French New Wave of Horror has been the most interesting over the past several years.) But some of these hard-to-watch "struggle" films wade through the travesty in order to express a higher point -- a higher morality that's made through suggestion, even in viewing the most evil extremes of the human condition.

The Virgin Spring is one such film. You have to go far into the forest and wander around in the darkness in order to make your way out to the other side. But on the other side of all the vile wrong, there's a ray of sunlight for meditation.

Films that retain this high artistic quality are usually present with themes that are "spiritual," or even Godly -- they're ethereal and metaphysical in nature. These are the themes that most personally appeal to me. The Virgin Spring is no exception.

But why should it be? Isn't Ingmar Bergman one who brought this to the screen for half of the last century, time and time again? Shouldn't I simply trust when I walk into a Bergman experience it is going to be far superior to the average Friday night movie -- that it does more than illicit an emotion or give you an enjoyable, fun experience, but actually challenges your notions, causing you to burrow into your hallowed beliefs, digging out questions at a higher, more critical level?

The Virgin Spring hits this level of contemplation like all the many parts that go into a good foundation: it contrasts the roots of pagan belief vs. the traditions of new Euro-Christianity; it shows the desire for harm wished on others, usurped by regret when it actually takes place; it contrasts mundane and obligatory routine morning prayers vs. the wailing dried-up prayer of a desperate man, dependent on only the hope of a higher power; and it breathes desire for repentance, atonement and justice, and asks whether all are deserving, or only a select few.

Of course, all of this leads me right back to the list, and specifically right back to Bergman. What can I say. All of this is a huge turn on for me.

For many years I've favored foreign film, my friends labelling me a "stuck-up" and a "film snob" along the way. I guess I prefer the term "aficionado," there's some kind of nice ring to that. But the truth is that I'm not trying to be a snob, I just simply prefer the best. I'd rather sit down to a majestic seven course meal than another cheeseburger and fries at McDonalds. I still know very little about global film -- six or seven Bergmans does not an aficionado make -- but it's so nice to have friends in a community I can trust that are teaching me along the way.

There is power in art that is from outside our understanding, and the more we take the plunge, the more we discover about our globe. We get many of the best films from other countries; only a country's best brings international distribution at all. So checking out your local art-house or a list like the Top 100 can lead you into richer, greener pastures. It's a trek well worth taking. The road I'm still on I wouldn't have any other way.

Bergman makes films like the kind I'm describing, and The Virgin Spring is one that I'll be mulling over for some time. It's not the kind of film you can immediately identify with. I'm not sure it fully resonated with me until giving it a day to sink in. The Criterion DVD has a commentary track that is off-the-charts outstanding. I'll be listening more to this as I learn from this rich story, and let it plum at the walls of my heart.

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