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Watching Ingmar Bergman's films, a moment arrives when the game of "Symbol, Symbol, who's got the Symbol," no longer suffices, the splicing of brilliant scenes becomes disjointed rather than hypnotic, and Bergman's subtle meanings are no more than a house of mirrors. When this happens, the result is failure; The Virgin Spring is a brilliant failure.
The film's stunning brutality, characteristically, is intensified by precise careful photography, the soft beauty of the girl who is raped and killed, and the inhuman overtones of Scandian religion. Yet because Bergman does not delincate human characters that can give the story direction, the film does not coalesce. His films, dreamlike, display the actors only as participants in individual scenes; despite the skill of such members of the troupe as von Sydow, the individuals never achieve a life and personality that can tie the film together.
The defect is partly hidden by the extreme tension in the film; a cliche can pass for an emotion, and a gesture for an insight. Yet the human appeal of Bergman's films proceeds not from his use of these escapes, but intensely anti-intellectual endings. Consciously or not, he asserts humanity by rejecting the intellectual and the analytic--the knight of the Seventh Seal, his quest for meaning in life unfulfilled, is taken by Death, leaving behind the troupers who have accepted life unquestioning. The Magician is called off to give a command performance, escaping a broken scientist whose effort to strip life down to reality has failed. And the Householder of Virgin Spring finally says
The Lord have mercy on me for what I have done. You saw it, God, you saw it, the death of an innocent child and my vengeance. You permitted it, and I don't understand you. Yet I now ask you for forgiveness--I do not know of any other way to reconcile myself with my own hands. I don't know of any other way to live.
Wild Strawberries, Bergman's best, also argues that the measure of man is humanity rather than knowledge or achievement, but does so in a relaxed and skillfully developed study of a man who is made understandable. But throughout Virgin Spring, obsession is the key character trait. Ingeri, the slut who, in envy of the girl, casts the spel! that precedes her rape and death, excuses the murdrers by saying Odin has possessed them. The parallel to the householder's mindless slaughter of the murderers and blind dragging of his followers back to the scene of his daughter's death, is surely intentional. Obsession and tension make compelling viewing; they do not make persuasive or perceptive art. Bergman wanders instead into a morass of behavioristic description which robs his stories of meaning and depth.
Brilliant symbolic photography confuses an audience so that it does not notice these defects. The virtue is that the viewer can read what he likes into the screenplay, and tends to blame obscurity on his own imperception; but the price is that technique becomes more important than either structure or meaning. At its best in the Virgin Spring, the technique is dazzling, and the already quiet audience becomes deathly silent when the householder drives his knife into a table and waits for the murders to wake. But this fascination holds the viewer rather than drawing his mind and sympathies into the film's message.
Talking to the child who travels with the murderers, a servant says, "People quiver like a leaf in the storm, afraid of what they know--and what they don't." He is clearly delivering a message, more clearly because he is so out of tone with the film. This same conscious search for certainty and safety links the knight of The Seventh Seal, the aging doctor of Wild Strawberries, the Magician, and even the distraught schoolboy of the earlier and less sophisticated Torment.
Bergman's answers are not all the same: love of God, love of man, or quiet return to the security of illusion, but all reject analysis, science, and ultimate meanings. Bergman's failures have fascinated critics, but have not yet persuaded him that shock and technique conceal the weakness of his work without making it successful. His latest shows again the distance from his vision of life accompained by brilliant handling of the cinema to a film that persuades rather than presenting an answer as revealed truth.
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