Classic Movie Review: 'The Virgin Spring', 'The Divine Comedy' and The Seven Deadly Sins
Did Ingmar Bergman adapt 'The Divine Comedy' through symbolism alone and no one noticed?
The classic on this week's episode of the Everyone's a Critic Movie Review Podcast is Ingmar Bergman's remarkable 1960 revenge film, The Virgin Spring. Mainstream audiences know The Virgin Spring as the movie that famously inspired Wes Craven to make his violent, mysoginist, hateful, horror debut The Last House on the Left.
That certainly should not be this film's legacy, but for many that is what The Virgin Spring is, even if the only similarity is a plot gimmick. It's certainly not how I see the legacy of The Virgin Spring and by the end of this review I will explain why The Virgin Spring deserves an entirely different reputation from the one that has taken hold in our popular culture.
The Virgin Spring tells the story of a family headed up by Tore (Max Von Sydow) and his wife Mareta (Birgitta Valberg). Tore has awakened disappointed by the fact that his brilliant daughter, the virginal Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), is still in bed. Tore wants his daughter to deliver candles to a nearby church as an offering but she is dragging her feet.
That is, until Karin's mother allows her to wear her church finery on this errand. Normally, Karin would only be permitted to wear her hand woven, remarkably intricate outfit to a church service but, eager to get Karin to get moving, mom agrees. The scene is played lightly and yet, for me, there is an impending sense of doom in both Mareta's over-indulgence of her daughter, and Karin's youthful arrogance, more on that later.
So, Karin, in her finest dress, and with hand servant, Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom) in tow, sets off to church, less than a days ride away. It should be a simple matter of getting to the church, delivering the candles, and saying a prayer before returning home. But obstacles emerge midway through the ride as Karin and Ingeri are separated by Ingeri's unwillingnes to enter a dark and scary forest.
Karin chooses to go on on her own, until she is confronted by three seemingly friendly goat herders. The two men and one child, ingratiate themselves to the lovely Karin with talk of few jobs and little money leading the naive Karin to offer the men her lunch, before accepting their invitation to eat with them. While Karin is oblivious to the lascivious attention of the goat herders, director Ingmar Bergman has brilliantly framed this plot so that there is an ever growing sense of dread.
Karin is raped and afterward, when it appears that she is headed to tell someone what happened to her, she is struck and killed with the blunt force of a thick, heavy, fallen tree branch. This horror will be revisited when the goat herders wind up at the home of Karin's parents with neither side realizing who the other is until one key, devastating moment of realization.
The legend of Tore is a well known one among Swedes. In the original telling of this ballad, Tore had three daughters who fell victim to three rapists and were murdered. Tore eventually captures the rapists and murders them only to find that they were actually his sons. Bergman simplified the story to focus on one daughter and dropping the sons angle while retaining the religious themes that made the story of Tore one that has lasted ages upon ages.
In researching this review, I was struck by how few critics refer to the The Virgin Spring and the Seven Deadly Sins. Each of the seven deadly sins as defined by Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy are present in The Virgin Spring in unique fashion. They are present in the form of specific characters, specific actions, and specific scenes throughout the film.
Lust is obvious and easily identified in the rape of Karin. The goat herders are overwhelmed by lust, consumed by it. Their eyes are wild with lust, the perversion of love into something putrid in action. The goat herders are corrupted by their desire for Karin and overcome with lust they commit a heinous, unforgivable act, one that leads eventually to their death.
Gluttony is a little more vague but it is there. The well known three, daily meals are each part of The Virgin Spring. We witness breakfast in Tore's home, lunch just before Karin's rape and murder and finally dinner just before the horrors of Tore's vengeance against the men who raped and murdered his daughter. Though the food isn't exactly tantalizing in its presentation, it is abundant, especially prior to Karin's death.
The bread that Karin shares with the goat herders is massive and unless you are starving like the goat herders, you likely would not be able to eat it all. Just as the scene is about to take its turn toward horror, Karin is holding a piece of bread nearly the size of her own head. Karin has enough excess of bread and cheese that she is able to give some to the bridgekeeper, with whom she leaves Ingeri. And still Karin has enough bread to share with the goat herders. And we still haven't reached the surprise sandwich that jealous Ingery has made for Karin, one with a live toad inside.
There is a gluttonous amount of eating going on for a time when we are to understand that many in the countryside are starving and left to beg for food and shelter. Tore and his family have an abundance of nearly everything, as Karin talks about her father's wealth in terms of a grand fairy tale of wealth so great that she could share it with the goat herders and make them each princes.
That leads us to Greed. Greed is represented in The Virgin Spring not just by Tore's comparative wealth to that of all around him but also in Karin herself. Listen to the ways in which Karin fetishizes material wealth. It's in the way she talks about her father wearing silk garments everyday and a golden helmet. It's there in how she talks about her mother having so many keys that she has to have servant follow her everywhere carrying the keys on a pillow.
Greed also directly leads to the death of the goat herders. It is in their greed to profit from having stolen Karin's expensive garments from her cold dead body that causes Karin's mother to recognize her daughter's dress and recognize the horror that must have taken place to separate her from that garment. Mareta tells Tore that the men have Karin's clothes and tried to sell them to her and the revenge plot is set in motion. Had they not been so greedy, the goat herders may have gotten away with murder.
Sloth appears in more ways than one in The Virgin Spring and in unusual and fascinating form. The first is rather direct, Karin has slept late and doesn't wish to get out of bed for her chore. Karin's father is growing upset at his daughter's inactivity and even asks that his wife send someone to 'get some life into that loafer.' Her mother claims that Karin is ill but no one believes that. Her father strongly indicates that she is simply lazy.
The other way in which we may identify sloth in The Virgin Spring is in the notion that Tore is perhaps not as Christian as his wife would prefer and that God would prefer. St Thomas Aquinas discussed sloth as a spiritual indifference. Tore has lapsed ever so slightly in his devotion, especially as compared to the devotion of his wife and this spiritual sloth is among Tore's sins.
Wrath in The virgin Spring is rather obvious. After it is revealed that the goat herders have murdered Karin, Tore becomes the physical embodiment of wrath. Tore's anger displaces his already lapsed faith in God and he commits himself to bloody vengeance. This vengeance consumes him to the point that even the seemingly innocent boy among the goat herders, is subject to Tore's wrath.
Envy is embodied quite simply in the character of Ingeri. Ingeri desires to be loved and cottled in the ways that Karin is. She desires Karin's clothes and comforts. Having been impregnated out of wedlock and subsequently belittled and mistreated, Ingeri turns her focus not to the people who belittle her, but to the one person who has everything that Ingeri desires, Karin. Ingeri's envy drives her to pray to the Pagan God Odin for something terrible to happen to Karin.
Envy appears in another aspect of The Virgin Spring and in an unexpected fashion. Mareta, the most pious mother of her household, nevertheless exhibits envy of the relationship between Tore and Karin. She wishes to be Karin's favorite and anguishes at not being able to replace the father in the loving eyes of her daughter. Mareta is devastated at the thought of Karin loving and appreciating Tore above her. It's Mareta's one sin despite her otherwise deeply pious nature.
Finally, we come to pride. I feel that the key scene in The Virgin Spring is one that depicts pride and one that most people don't discuss: Karin's dressing scene. When Karin's mother goes to wake her and inform Karin that her father is demanding that she deliver candles to church, Karin first refuses until her mother allows her to wear her Sunday finest on the trip.
What follows is a lengthy scene in which Karin fetishizes her clothing. The glee that she expresses over the finery that she wishes to wear on a simple errand to church is indicative of her pride, her vanity. One line strongly makes my point however, about Karin's pride. It's a line that is extraordinarily modern yet apt for the moment.
After Karin has dressed and decided to wear her hair down, she gazes into a clear pool of water to use the water as a mirror. In this moment, Karin says to her mother "You're in my light." Most critics in discussing The Virgin Spring get caught up in talking about Karin's symbolic innocence but she's just as sinful as anyone else in the movie by the patriarchal standards of the seven deadly sins.
The thing about Pride as one of the seven deadly sins is that it does not fit with the way we see the world even in 1960, let alone today. Today, Pride is deified and morphed into confidence. Having Pride in one's appearance is acceptable in this day and age, even prized above other qualities in a human being. I believe many other critics miss out on Karin's sin of Pride because they are too busy seeing her as someone who deserves to take pride.
Karin is beautiful, virginal, innocent. She is a figure of desire and a figure of aspiration. We encourage woman to want to be like Karin, to take pride in their appearance and to seek virginity and innocence. I think critics are loathe to be critcal of Karin because she is beautiful but also because she is soon to become the victim.
It's uncomfortable and risky to talk about as some will say that you are blaming Karin for what happened to her, but if you take a strict reading of the seven deadly sins, Karin's pride is her downfall. By a standard of the time in which this story is set, Karin's pride in her appearance, her desire to present her own beauty to the world is what causes the goat herders to go mad with lust.
I want to be clear, I don't agree with that perspective. I cannot state enough that what happens to Karin is not her fault. I am strictly speaking in interpretation of the seven deadly sins and in a strict reading of the sins, Karin's pride in her appearance is a sin and then she dies. It's deeply problematic and uncomfortable, but it fits a very strictly patriarchal reading of The Seven Deadly Sins.
Pride is the sin that begets all other sins according to many scholars. There is said to be no greater sin than placing oneself ahead of God in importance. Karin doesn't intend to place herself above God but in placing her desire to demonstrate her own beauty ahead of her duty to the church, she has essentially placed herself ahead of God. This sin begets the sin of lust in the goat herders, the sin of envy in Ingery, and eventually the sin of wrath in her father.
In his Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri wrote about the seven deadly sins falling into three categories, excessive love, deficient love and malicious love. Karin's mother has what could be considered an excessive love of her daughter, a lustful desire to be he daughter's favored parent. There is a deficient love of God in both Tore and Karin, Tore in the way he takes God for granted and Karin in how she places her love of self over her love of God. And finally, malicious love, which Dante applies to Lust, Pride and wrath. The lust of the goat herders leading to murder, the pride of Karin leading to her death, Tore's own pride in his daughter and his place in the world and finally, Tore's wrath. Would it be unfair to say that Bergman is loosely adapting Dante in The Virgin Spring?
Ah, but what of gluttony? One of Dante's excessive loves. Gluttony precedes the other sins in most cases throughout The Virgin Spring. Gluttony is present at breakfast prior to talk of Karin's slothful laziness and before the introduction of her pride. Gluttony precedes lust in the lunch prior to the goat herders attack and murder of Karin. And finally, gluttony at dinner precedes the greed of the goat herders, and their attempt to sell Karin's stolen garments, Mareta's confession of her envy for Karin's love of Tore, and finally Tore's wrath.
All of this interpretation and The Virgin Spring is a mere 89 minutes in length. Bergman crams numerous religious allegory, a loose adaptation of Dante and each of the seven deadly sins into one movie and still finds time for redemption in the end. The final, beautiful moments of The Virgin Spring find the anguished Tore screaming at God before repenting almost out exhaustion. Repentance is the only option for Tore that isn't a life lived in the absence of God and in the presence of unending pain.
Some have argued that Tore's response doesn't make sense. Why would Tore ask God for forgiveness? Why would Tore want to continue believing in a God that could witness such horror and do nothing? Forgiveness, in the minds of many the ultimate act of faith. Forgiveness is at the heart of a healthy worldview. If the only other option is a lifetime of resentment, anger and regret, then forgiveness is the only answer. In religion, asking God for forgiveness of sin and assuming his granting of that forgiveness, is the heart of faith.
Director Ingmar Bergman chooses to make the covenant between Tore, his family, and God concrete by giving him a legitimate miracle as a sign of forgiveness. The end of The Virgin Spring is God granting a legitimate miracle as way of telling Tore, and us in the audience, that God has forgiven Tore and will accept his renewed faith and his offer of a new church as signs of his having left sin in the past.
The miracle he chooses is the Virgin Spring of the title which comes trickling out from beneath the lifeless body of Karin. Each of the characters present take in the water and are cleansed by it in a symbolic baptism and rechristening. Even Karin is reborn by the water only she is now at the side of God.
Much like Dante at the end of The Divine Comedy, Tore has been through the inferno where he slayed the beasts of self-indulgence, violence and maliciousness, via the killing of the goat herders. He's survived a purgatory represented the absence of God in his life and strongly represents his lapse in faith. And finally he's found divinity in the presence of a miracle provided by God, not unlike Dante meeting the indescribable triune God at the end of the Divine Comedy.
Yes, dear reader, while we've spent decades referring to The Virgin Spring as that which inspired the horror of The Last House on the Left perhaps we should have lauded The Virgin Spring as the most inspired adaptation of Dante's Divine Comedy ever brought to the big screen.