By Jeffrey M. Anderson
The legendary Ingmar Bergman made the best movie of 2005 with Saraband, his official return to form since his "retirement" in 1984, and a semi-sequel to his 1974 film Scenes from a Marriage.
As expected, Saraband received a prompt DVD release from Sony Pictures Classics ($29.95), and it comes with a fascinating documentary following the still-spry master at work.
However, having made more than 50 feature films and TV movies since the late 1940s, there is still a great deal of Bergman material to be released on DVD. Among the missing: After the Rehearsal (1984), Face to Face (1976), The Touch (1971), Brink of Life (1958), The Magician (1958), Sawdust and Tinsel (1951) and Summer Interlude (1950).
The Criterion Collection now chimes in with a crisp new DVD of The Virgin Spring (1960).
Unlike Saraband, which was callously overlooked by this year's Academy, The Virgin Spring actually won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. It was the first of nine nominations Bergman would receive over the years, and the first of three Best Foreign Language Film Oscars (the other two went to Through a Glass Darkly and Fanny and Alexander).
Perhaps best known to a later generation of film fans as the inspiration for Wes Craven's rape-horror film The Last House on the Left (1971), The Virgin Spring may cause more than a little apprehension.
But cineastes should take heart. The master guides us through this heartbreaking tale with a delicate hand and a gorgeous, poetic touch. It's actually one of his simplest and most moving works -- a film to be savored and pondered.
One of the few films in Bergman's canon that he did not write, The Virgin Spring is based on a Swedish ballad and set in medieval times.
A pious farming family chooses their Blond, virginal and spoiled daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) to cross the woods and deliver candles to the church for a special ceremony. Karin takes along her disgraced, pregnant foster sister, the wild, dark-haired Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom).
Bergman makes the most of the two girls and their physical oppositions. Karin's silken dress clashes with Ingeri's harsh rags, and we can almost feel the difference between the two textures.
Unfortunately, tragedy strikes and the remaining characters must find a balance between their dedication to God and their natural lust for revenge.
The Virgin Spring marked the first time Bergman worked with his legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist (they would later team up for more than 20 films and television movies); the film has a lovely, deep, natural feel. When not focusing on faces, Nykvist does a remarkable job of capturing the nuances of their surroundings.
One of the most striking scenes has Töre (Max Von Sydow) wrestling with a spruce tree four times his height. He maneuvers it out of the ground so that he may whip himself with its leaves, as if to cleanse himself of the vengeance he plans to unleash.
Perhaps the thrashing works; when all is said and done, an honest-to-goodness miracle occurs, right on camera, right in front of our eyes.
Yet Bergman adds an interesting sidebar; a minor character explains at one point how the smoke from the fire finds its way up to the ceiling, but cannot go out through the opening into the free sky. The smoke doesn't know what's up there, he explains, so it stays indoors, trapped among what it does know.
This analogy could be read as an alternate viewpoint to the film's purely religious themes. Like all good works of art, there is no final, absolute answer.
DVD Details: As for Criterion's new DVD, the final answer is this: it looks amazing, transferred from the original camera negative, which is the highest quality picture available. Ang Lee provides an introduction (but where's Wes Craven?), and scholar Birgitta Steene speaks on a very dull commentary track. Actresses Lindblom and Pettersson participate in new video interviews. Other extras include an audio recording of Bergman's 1975 seminar at the American Film Institute, the film's original English dubbed soundtrack, and a 28-page booklet that includes the original Swedish ballad and an essay by Peter Cowie.