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The Virgin Spring – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

As much a fan I may be of legendary director Ingmar Bergman, I’ve never actually written at length about one of his films. Thanks to this re-release of his Oscar-winning film, The Virgin Spring, from The Criterion Collection, I now have the chance. Numerous superlatives go with almost any of Bergman films, and this one is no different. In addition to being an odd inspiration for some films that came later on, this was the movie that brought Bergman a lot more international acclaim, having already delivered some of his signature work. All that success and he wasn’t even much of a fan of this entry in his oeuvre. All that and more in this assessment of another great Blu-ray upgrade for a terrific feature.

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Film:

Based on a medieval ballad, the film tells a straightforward story of faith, savage acts, and revenge. The themes run much deeper, as this is truly a story about the struggle between Christianity and Paganism. Plot-wise, however, Max von Sydow stars as Tore, the patriarch of a prosperous Christian family in medieval Sweden. Tore sends his daughter (Birgitta Pettersson) to church on an errand, along with the pregnant servant (Gunnel Lindblom), who secretly worships Odin. A heinous act takes place and those responsible, by chance, wind up seeking shelter at Tore’s home. Upon discovery of foul play, to say the least, Tore pursues his revenge.

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because it has been remade in various forms, most notably Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Nothing more really needs to be said about those exploitative takes on this story, however, because Bergman’s film is indeed the only one that needs to be seen. The Virgin Spring is an incredibly well-made film that uses its minimal settings and characters well to tell a story that pushes through its swift 90-minute runtime. Even then, all that needs to be accomplished is handled by way of assured filmmaking.

I mentioned how Bergman is not much of a fan of this particular project and it comes from his inspiration. Working from a story he didn’t develop himself, The Virgin Spring was his attempt to mimic the style of Akira Kurosawa, the famed Japanese director whom Bergman had lots of admiration for. Plenty of influence comes from Kurosawa’s Rashomon when it comes to both the story and the visual style. While only told from one perspective, the use of natural lighting and more improvised ideas on Bergman’s part certainly allows one to see the inspiration. Even then, while Bergman felt he did a poor job, The Virgin Spring stands up as a thrilling piece of work.

Without going into what precisely takes place in the story, the way faith plays a role is fascinating when considering how it manifests itself through the characters and visuals. Tore goes through quite the ordeal in all of this, and the film does a beautiful job communicating his struggles by way of striking imagery involving a tree, its branches, a unique weapon, and more. There’s a haunting feel for much of the proceedings not involving the innocent daughter, and even when she is involved during a key sequence, the film embraces darkness that must have stuck out for the original audience in 1960.

Being a Bergman film, the idea of faith, guilt, and mortality should not be a surprise, but it doesn’t stop being interesting. Especially given the setting, here’s a film that relies on our understanding the struggles characters go through in attempting to be devout to their cause or themselves. The end of the feature is especially impressive for how it holds on individual shots and finds Tore, among others, in a particular place as far as what they should do next. That the film finds an appropriate ending that has a definite spiritual implication makes plenty of sense, as well as seals the film as a genuinely great one.

The Virgin Spring is an excellent feature. Even when Bergman doubts himself, we can still see he was a master filmmaker. A solid set of performances and an exceptional filmmaking team have made for a stunning feature that still has plenty of power today. Given how people tend to look at the world today, just know there are films like this that easily express conflicting feelings just as well and find fascinating ways to explore it.


Video:

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC 

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Details: The film’s new digital transfer has been created in a 2K resolution from the 35 mm original camera negative on an ARRISCAN film scanner and restored by Svensk Filmindustri using Nucoda Film Master as a grading tool and Digital Vision’s Phoenix and Foundry’s NUKE as restoration tools.

Clarity/Detail: The black and white image is wonderful. Presented in its original aspect ratio, there are areas where the work to restore the picture shows, but hardly an issue. The picture is very clean, with a great level of detail to be seen throughout. There is a moment involving Max von Sydow that looks excellent when considering the amount of detail around him, as he uses tree branches to prepare for a certain event. It’s moments like these that show the work that went into restoring the image and holding onto what is true. Sure, the natural film grain is here, but almost no print damage or artifacts.

Depth: A proper handle on character spacing keeps the image from ever feeling flat.

Black Levels: Oh my goodness, how great are the black levels? They are outstanding. Once the night sets in, it is incredible to see just how well the blacks contrast with things like fire or the dead characters. The black levels are deep and inky, with no signs of crushing at all. They play incredibly well with the grays and whites constantly on display, adding to the level of nuance found in Romero’s direction.

Color Reproduction: N/A

Flesh Tones: The detail level seen in the actual characters is impressive, almost too impressive. At times you can see areas where makeup was applied. Regardless, the actors all look great with this presentation for the most part.

Noise/Artifacts: With so much work to deliver a strong new transfer of this film, there is nothing to complain about here. There is a consistent level of grain that is to be expected, but this film is basically spotless.

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Audio:

Audio Format(s): Swedish LPCM 1.0

Subtitles: English SDH

Dynamics: For a mono track, there is not much to complain about. This is a clean and clear track with no real audible issues to speak of. There’s no distortion, the range is at an appropriate level for a foreign film from 1960, and I never felt like I wasn’t getting the impact I would expect for this sort of track.

Low-Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone sounds clear.

 

Extras:

While not quite a plethora of extras compared to some of the other Bergman films found on Blu-ray, there is still a nice collection of features here including a commentary track, interviews with the actors, and the standard booklet that actually features the entire story this film was based on.

Features Include:

  • Audio Commentary from 2005 by Ingmar Bergman scholar Birgitta Steene
  • Introduction by filmmaker Ang Lee (HD, 7:04) – The Oscar-winning filmmaking discusses the impact this film had on him and why it still holds power today.
  • Gunnel Lindblom and Birgitta Pettersson (HD, 20:33) – Interviews with two of the key actors of the film who reflect on their experiences working with Bergman. Recorded in 2005 and presented in Swedish with English subtitles.
  • Ingmar Bergman at the AFI (HD, 40:27) – An audio recording from 1975, with Bergman giving a seminar at AFI in English.
  • PLUS – A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Peter Cowie, reflections by screenwriter Ulla IIsaksson from the time of the film’s release, and the medieval ballad on which the film is based.

 

Summary:

In this day and age, it may seem like a daunting challenge to pick up a Bergman film and dive in. It’s quite the opposite for a lot of his films and The Virgin Spring is one of them. The film moves along as it needs to, packing in some heavy ideas, but never really feeling like an oppressive watch. It’s just a great movie. The Criterion Collection have done a fine job in restoring this film for its Blu-ray upgrade. The extras are also worthwhile for what is available. This may be a film about faith, guilt, and other challenging ideas, but it is certainly worth taking a look at.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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