Friday, September 25, 2009

Bergman's "The Virgin Spring"

Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) is a graphic telling of a 14th-century Swedish ballad. As do many Bergman films, this one revolves around the issue of faith. This film has long periods of silence and long-held shots. To say that the acting is powerful would be an understatement. Töre is played by Max von Sydow, who often appears to stand-in for Bergman himself.

(Warning: this post gives every spoiler away. Do not read it if you want to be 'surprised' by the plot of the movie. I do not find the story as interesting as Bergman's telling of it, so I give away the whole story here.)

The story is set in medieval Sweden. We are first introduced to Ingeri, a dark-haired, grimy, heavily pregnant young woman. Coming forward from deep in the shadows, she reaches toward the sunlight coming through a shaft in the roof and intones, “Come, Odin! Come!” It is clear that Ingeri is consumed by hatred and a desire for revenge, although we do not yet know why. We next meet landowners Töre and Märeta praying their morning prayers before a crucifix. There is a little talk about the laziness of their innocent teenage daughter, Karin, and it is implied that they have had, and lost, other children, leaving blond overindulged Karin as the light of their lives. (In Sven Nyqvist’s masterful cinematography, she does indeed seem to be a point of illumination.) She is sent to bring candles for the Virgin to the local Church, with foster sister Ingeri as a companion. Karin chides her mother Märeta for her over-concern, and gets her way by wearing some of her best finery. Karin clearly has her father Töre wrapped around her finger, managing to elicit smiles from the usually stern and duty bound man.

Karin and Ingeri set off, and a few encounters and a brief conversation finally reveal the source of Ingeri’s anger: Karin is a beloved blond maiden who talked and danced the previous night with the man who impregnated (and abandoned) Ingeri. When Ingeri taunts Karin, “You won’t be able to say no when a man wants you…What would you do if a man decided to take you in the fields?” Karin lifts her chin high and says, “That will not happen. I would rather be killed.” Spying a cawing raven, looking over the darkness of the approaching forest, and noticing the pagan talismans of the man who helps Karin across the river, Ingeri does not continue on their journey, eventually running away into the forest separately.

Now alone, Karin meets two herdsmen and a young boy. As she is late to the Church and has already missed matins, she offers to share her food with them, and the four enjoy a repast in a clearing. When she recognizes their sheep as stolen, Karin begins to flee, only to be captured and brutally raped by both men as both the boy and Ingeri - from a distance with rock in hand - watch. (Warning: this is one of the most graphic portrayals of rape in film – the story inspired Wes Craven’s horror movie The Last House on the Left.) Karin gets up, stumbling, only to be hit on the head by a staff and killed by one of the men. Quickly they undress her, take her clothes, rummage through the rest of her stuff, throwing the candles for the Virgin upon the ground, and run off, telling the young boy to stay there. Looking at her lifeless, mostly naked body, he throws some dirt on her as Ingeri continues to watch.

Eventually, the three make their way to a house: Töre stands in the door like a totem, looking for his daughter as the sun is falling. Not knowing who they are, he feeds his guests, offers them a place to spend the night, and suggests that he may have work for them on his farm. Later that night, Märeta is awoken by the boy’s screams and goes to check on them. One of the men offers her Karin’s bloodstained finery – he hopes to sell it to her. She presents it to her husband. He walks outside where he meets Ingeri, who tells him all about his guests’ actions, and confesses that, motivated by jealousy, she did nothing while Karin was raped and killed. He tells her to prepare a hot bath, and in one of the most striking visual scenes of the movie, wrestles against a lone, young birch tree on a hill, trying to bring it down. He beats himself with its branches, dons a leather cloak and pants, and with the butcher’s knife, stabs the two men to death. His wife tries to protect the boy, but he picks the boy up and flings him against the wall, killing him too.

Led by Ingeri, Töre and Märeta and their farmworkers find Karin’s body. Töre turns away, falls to his knees, opens his hands and says, “You saw it. God, You saw it. The innocent child’s death and my revenge. You allowed it. I don’t understand you. I don’t understand you. Yet now I beg your forgiveness. I know no other way to be reconciled with my own hands. I know no other way to live.” His head and hands fall, and recognizing his own need for repentance for his blood-stained acts, he says, “I will build a Church for You here.” He and his wife go to move their daughter’s body, and from where her head was suddenly flows a spring of water. Ingeri gathers this water in her hands and pours it over her face, a symbolic baptism.

Early in the film, one of the servants chides baby chicks for nearly being trampled underfoot, telling them, “God could trample them to death. So you poor thing, live your wretched life the way God allows all of us to live.” Indeed, all life belonging to God is one of the central tenets of this film. How could God allow a middle-aged couple to be robbed of their only remaining biological child? How could God allow this brutality to be visited upon a woman, much less a maiden bringing candles for His own Mother? How can these human beings – the herdsmen and Töre – engage in such evil acts, and how could others – the boy and Ingeri – just crouch and watch? How does one keep faith in the face of such acts? Bergman’s answer, through Töre, is simple yet complex: “I know no other way to live.” The cynic can say, "well, he just needs to find atheism" (and Bergman did find agnosticism). But the son of a Lutheran pastor would have well known Psalm 139:

O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD.

You hem me in—behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?


Anonymous said...

The thing I took away from this film was a very eerie sense of the behavior of the Divine. It is sort of the legends of the virgin martyrs and, particularly, the story of St. Maria Goretti, deconstructed. For in all of the "official" stories, the woman doesn't get raped, sort of buttressing the idea of the "Ecclesia inviolata", the Blessed Mother, and virginity as the sine qua non of feminine holiness within official Catholic hagiography. Nowhere in the martyrology, for example, will it admit that a female martyr was raped or that she succumbed to being sent to a brothel. The presupposition was that if a woman fell into such a fate, she ran the risk that she would actually "enjoy it", and thus be a "fallen woman". It mattered not if it was forced or not. Even if she died in the end, it was presumed that she would have died under "questionable circumstances": her fate being questionable, such a Thomas A Kempis waking up in his own coffin. That is why in the Spiritual Meadow of John Moschos, a woman was praised for plunging to her death rather than succumbing to men attempting to rape her. “Folk history” repeated itself a millennium and a half later in the legend of the death of the folk saint Sarita Colonia in Peru, who plunged to her death in the sea rather than be violated in that way.

That is sort of the messed up reasoning of the official Church. What Bergman represents, based, as you pointed out to me, on a medieval Swedish ballad, was that the people would be able to see the hand of God working under such circumstances, perhaps in a bizarre and embarrassing way that many people shaky in their faith in theism would not understand. I hearken back to many other folk saints in Latin America who have been raped, killed, and left on the side of the road, or women murdered by jealous husbands. Even if the Church could not find a way to commemorate their suffering deaths, the people would. Maybe that means that the people were “poorly catechized”, or maybe that just meant that the people had a heart. I think that was also the case in medieval Sweden; it’s just that Latin America didn’t get the memo about modernity, as is the case in many instances.

As for the main point, I think there are times in our lives where the only act of sanity is to say, “God, I don’t understand you”. Indeed, the psalms, as you pointed out by citing one of my favorites, are quite eloquent in expressing this sentiment. And trying to reason your way out of it by saying, “it’s all for the best”, or “everything is going to be okay”, or, “God must know what He’s doing when He does this”, are sort of crappy cop-out answers. No, this doesn’t make any sense, and no, I am not going to stand here and try to bullshit my way out of it through pious arguments that I don’t believe for a second. There’s sort of nothing left to say: God saw this and let it happen, and He could let a million of other things happen. But perhaps there is much to do, like building a church at the site where a miraculous spring has sprung forth in penance for avenging your innocent daughter’s death. But the “reasoning part” you may just have to leave alone. But maybe the Cross itself, some naked guy hanging on two stumps, also just says, “God, I don’t understand you.” And perhaps with that, we have said enough.

AG said...

To the first part of your comment, it's worth noting that in the source ballad, it's not at all clear that the daughter maidens were raped: they prefer death, and the three herdsmen go ahead and cut their heads off. I don't want to get into common feminist complaints re. female sexuality, but it does seem that a woman's sexuality rightly belonged to father, husband, or God, and forced sexual activity outside of that was nevertheless a violation of the woman's duties to the above three. (Tied to this is of course women as property, and needing to maintain virginity to also be certain of marital consummation and paternity, etc.)

I used to have quite the attachment to St. Maria Goretti, having been baptized in a church of that name, and when the issue of being safe came up, would tell my mom I would prefer to be killed than raped. One time my mother lowered her head and quietly told me, "I wouldn't prefer that you would be killed," and I never gave my mom that response again. Karin also gives the 'prefer death to fate worse than death' response to Ingeri, and I think one of the most devastating aspects Bergman's graphic shooting of the rape scene is that it is clear that unless God spirits her away or gives her superhuman physical strength, she is just not going to be able to fight these two men off. So it is interesting if Bergman took the artistic license to actually confront the "virgin martyr" stories and legends to further his theme of the (seeming) absence/inaction of God.

In fairness, it's also worth pointing out that Bergman's own "I don't understand it," would only get stronger, leading him into agnosticism. His next three films - the religious trilogy of "Winter Light," "Through A Glass Darkly," and "The Silence" - show an increasing despair about religious faith and God's role in the world. Then he had a mental breakdown, fully embraced atheism/agnosticism, and would make "Persona," a film in which the most repeated word is 'Nothing." But in the last interviews he gave in his final years, he did seem to be at peace with a certain "God, I don't understand you."

It wasn't central to my original post, but from what I read awhile ago, Bergman was not happy with this film. Critics at the time thought it 'too simplistic' for the writer/director of "The Seventh Seal," and he took such criticisms to heart (even though it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1960). He also seems to have been embarrassed by the choices he made in shooting certain scenes when he compared the film to ones coming out of the French New Wave: he thought he'd been entirely too conventional in the staging of scenes with Tore, especially his fighting with the birch tree and meeting with the criminals. Yet it is those moments that I think make the film much more accessible than most of his other films, and he (most oddly) never considered himself an auteur, believing 'til the end that he made films that were very accessible and 'entertaining' to the masses. (He liked to compare himself to an anonymous worker on one of the great medieval cathedrals.)