Bergman was the son of a Christian pastor and a lifelong atheist. He spent considerable intellectual capital trying to work out why humans were so desperate for a God. He also devoted significant artistic effort to depicting a world where people call out to God but God doesn't answer.
The Virgin Spring is set in medieval Sweden, a time when Christianity was ascendant, but some people still prayed to their old pagan gods. In the opening scene, Ingeri, a foster daughter, invokes Odin to call down a curse on Karin, the favored only child. In the next scene, we see the patriarch Tore (Max Von Sydow) and his wife Mareta (Birgitta Valberg) praying to a lurid statue of Christ on the cross. The rest of the movie goes deep into this tension between the forbearance of Jesus and the bloody justice of the Norse pagan gods.
The story, based on a 13th century Swedish ballad, is simple and stark. Karin, accompanied by Ingeri, sets off to deliver some candles to the church. While riding through the woods they get separated. Ingeri meets an old hermit, a pantheist, who shows her his secret stash of magic relics. Repulsed, she flees deeper into the forest. Karin meets two goatherds and their younger brother, and offers to share her lunch with them. They lead the naïve girl to a glade by a stream, and there they rape and murder her. They strip her of her fine clothing, intending to sell it, and flee.
Unfortunately for them, the first farm they come to is Tore's. Unaware of what has happened, Tore gives them dinner and a bed for the night. After dinner, the goatherds offer Karin's blood stained dress for sale to her mother. Hiding her shock, she hurries away to tell Tore. Without hestitation, Tore prepares himself with a purifying bath, then bursts into the guesthouse and takes revenge on the goatherds. In a final act of rage, he kills their younger brother as well.
Ingeri returns during the night, and the next day she leads them to Karin's body. When Tore lifts up his daughter's corpse, an underground spring gushes forth from beneath her. In a masterful scene, shot almost entirely from behind Tore, we watch him absorb the emotional impact of his daughter's death like a body blow. He raises supplicating hands to demand of his God why He let this happen. He then decides to build a sturdy church on this spot. It's his way of trying to control and appease the inexplicable evil that has descended upon his life, and, perhaps, his way of atoning for the evil he has done in return.
Christianity has struggled for centuries with this simple question: if God is so just, all-powerful and merciful, why does he allow so much evil to exist in this world? Christianity's most pernicious and effective response is found in the story of Job. It's pernicious because it blames the victim for his own misfortune, which is all the justification generations of psychopaths, warlords and totalitarians have needed to inflict their evil on innocent people who can't or won't strike back. It's effective because it locates the response to misfortune in the only place a human can control, which is his own reaction to what befalls him. Bergman, like Dostoievski's great apostates, cannot respect a God who allows the rape and murder of a young girl. Not respecting, he also doesn't believe.
For Bergman, nothing exists beyond human actions and their consequences. Tore knows that killing the goatherds won't assuage his anguish, and that killing the boy is morally questionable at best. Yet neither he nor Mareta hesitates in the slightest when it comes time to take revenge. Bergman is showing us what a difficult God this Jesus is. As Dostoievski pointed out so brilliantly in The Grand Inquistor chapter of the Brothers Karamazov, Jesus is both too much like us to obey without question and too pure in his responses to emulate successfully. In the end, having taken a bloodthirsty, pagan revenge, Tore is praying to a God whose example he can't follow and who can't or won't protect him from the suffering of this world. These intellectual contradictions and emotional conundrums are the polluted springs from which flowed the dour, life-denying Christian Protestantism inflicted on Bergman as a boy.
This is the first feature length collaboration between Bergman and Sven Nykvist. Nykvist captures the war of sunlight and shadow that occurs during early spring in the northern latitudes. He also provides some vivid tracking shots through the latticework of the unleafed forest. Lingering closeups on faces became a Bergman trademark. Here they work to great effect, showing us Karin's spoiled innocence, Ingeri's conflicted resentment, Tore's ambivalent rage.
The Virgin Spring is one of Bergman's greatest achievements. By refusing to impose a viewpoint on his simple story, he gives us the room we need to absorb its tragic and universal dimensions. This movie stays with you long after the credits stop rolling.