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The Virgin Spring

Set in a medieval Sweden wedged between paganism and Christianity and sodden with guilt, The Virgin Spring (1960) tells a tale of rape and vengeance, murder and faith. The last Ingmar Bergman film I watched was Wild Strawberries (1957), so I wasn't expecting this one to be so dismal and poignant.

In a spoiler-filled nutshell, the young and fair Karin, with her pregnant servant Ingeri, heads off on horseback to bring candles to a church. Ingeri, who believes in the god Odin (a possible source of evil in the narrative, it seems), stops at a mill for fear of continuing on, and is nearly raped by a one-eyed weirdo who claims he knows magic. Karin does go on, however, and is soon led off the path by three herdsmen, one of whom is just a young lad. She is raped then killed by the older two, and Ingeri witnesses it all from the forest but does nothing to stop it, and later blames herself for "willing" the act. It's winter, and after fleeing the scene of the crime, the herdsmen stop at a house and plead for shelter. Little do they know that they've come to the very home of the girl they've killed. Töre—a devout Christian and Karin's father—kindly allows them to stay the night, feeds them, and urges them to keep the fire burning in order to stave off the cold. When the boys later pull out from their satchel a dress to sell to Karin's mother, they haven't a clue that this offer will bring upon them bloody vengeance. The mother shows the garment to Töre, who ceremoniously readies himself to wake the boys and avenge his daughter's murder. The "spring" in the title is not the season but rather the stream that flows from the earth, which springs forth from the ground under Karin's head when her family and Ingeri retrieve her body.

Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist portrayed a blend of beauty and cruelty draped in purity and filth. The film is disturbing, and this is intensified by the drawn out shots, particularly of the daughter's face during and after the rape scenes as well as the expressions of her killers, the woebegone Ingeri, and Karin's family. The film isn't one that's easily forgotten, for the images and for how it sharply addresses the question of how one can reconcile suffering and the existence of evil with an omnipotent and omnibenevolent god.


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