Taken from a classic Swedish folk ballad, THE VIRGIN SPRING follows the daughter of a wealthy family who sets off on horseback through the woods to deliver votive candles to the church. Along the path, she is stopped by three goatherds, who proceed to rape and kill her. The murderers mistakenly seek refuge from the cold within her father's house, and upon learning of their misdeeds, the broken Christian takes his revenge against the men and then throws himself before God for forgiveness. Ingmar Bergman's transcendental tale of faith and forgiveness may be a minor footnote in his brilliant career, however it is still an excellent film for cineasts to deconstruct and discuss.
THE VIRGIN SPRING is built on dualities, both in style and in theme. Bergman contrasts light and dark, good and evil, faith and disbelief, civilization and savagery. His poetic symbolism finds religious iconography in everything down to the elemental forms of fire and water. The sweet, innocent Karin is also exceedingly vain and selfish. Elegant scenes of beauty are placed beside the horrible acts of rape and murder. There is a purposefulness with which Bergman defies the camera, using uneven compositions while turning away from his most emotionally-charged scenes to demonstrate the frailty and imperfection in mankind.
Although THE VIRGIN SPRING professes an undying devotion to God, it is also, in essence, a very godless picture. This is best evidenced by Tore's soliloquy in the end:
"You see it, God. You see it. The innocent child's death, and my revenge. You allowed it. I don't understand You. I don't understand You. Yet, I still ask your forgiveness. I know no other way to live."
These words spoken by a grieving father in an open field with his back to the world. He is alone. How often is this question asked in times of war and despair? How can a loving God stand idly by in the face of death and destruction? Bergman constantly questions the proposition of faith. The themes resonate with the audience, and they leave a lasting effect. As Karin's body is removed from the ditch, a bubbling spring forms where her head once laid, and each of her family members wash themselves of their sins in its waters, forming a cross in a final moment of resolve. This is obviously meant to suggest that God has granted his forgiveness, thereby delivering a sound moralistic ending to the tragic tale.
Above all else, it is Bergman's decisive timing that sets the film apart. Having been profoundly influenced by the work of Akira Kurosawa, Bergman deliberately slows his pace, and plays out many scenes with little or no dialog. It seems like an infinity as Tore contemplates his actions, set before the three villains with blade in hand. The tension runs deeper than his knife. Max von Sydow provides enough expressiveness in his performance as to eliminate the need for an excessive outpour, and the wide-eyed awakening of the goatherds is enough to affirm their guilt.
THE VIRGIN SPRING would receive a renewed interest from the unlikeliest of sources in the 1970's, when an unknown director named Wes Craven would produce one of cinema's most shocking exploitation films of all-time based on Bergman's work. THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT pits two unexpecting teens against a group of vicious criminals, who rape and kill the girls in graphic detail and nauseating realism before they are slain by one of the girl's parents. Craven's film is far more nihilistic, throwing out any chance for redemption in a downturn ending that reflects the political unease of the time.
Along with WILD STRAWBERRIES and THE SEVENTH SEAL, Ingmar Bergman's THE VIRGIN SPRING continues to stand the test of time as a classic in art house cinema.
Movies like THE VIRGIN SPRING:
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, THE SEVENTH SEAL.