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The Virgin Spring was my fifth experience with this masterful auteur and, in my mind, is the most profound one in terms of religious impact. I find it tragic that a film with roots ever-growing below its surface is passed off or classified as a crime or horror film. I'll concede the point that both characteristics fit, in two ways actually, but the subtextual one that examines the tribulations of religious and moral dichotomy is far more frightening than the superficial examples. Under normal circumstances I try to steer clear of overly emphasizing characterizations and traits in such a film but I feel it is essential in understanding the film's underlying themes.
The family in which we are presented with at the film's opening is quite diverse in terms of how high they uphold their own morality and, to the same extent, how high they regard that of their loved ones. To an outsider there would appear to exist a strong union of faith amongst the family but their individual practices are quite different and often times conflicting. A pregnant young woman, Ingeri, prays to Odin at the films beginning, begging a harsh, ungodly conquest of the presumably innocent Karin. Karin's most dwelled on characteristic is her virginity and thus is seen as a pure interpretation of God's example for all women, at least by her family. Without dwelling too much on detail, her father Tore favors her more than her mother, who is capable of seeing her shortcomings and excesses in terms of social practices, material concerns, and naivety. Still, the mother prays unabatedly that she retains her virtue and can begin seeing the presence of The Lord in terms greater than dogmatic practices but as an ever-existing entity which demands the grandest of standards be met in terms of moral fidelity.
Throughout the course of the film itself, Bergman challenges us greatly to reflect upon not what is happening but why, especially in terms of religious connotation. In short, the prayers of Ingeri are met as Karin is not only raped but also murdered by a trio of goat herders. What makes this movement so perplexing is that we, as the audience, must consider whether or not this was sheer chance or is it indeed the effect of a greater cause. Bergman insists that we consider why the prayers of misdeed went answered as those of such a pious woman did not. At first I took this almost as a criticism of blind faith as well as the unwillingness of God to lead those from temptation and act upon the Earthly realm. However, we can also, at this time, ignore any religious undertones to said event and think of this tragedy if a more fatalistic sense, despite an earlier encounter that Ingeri had with a darkened figure who can be presumed as Odin in a humanistic disguise. The downfall of Karin's human form was indeed partially exemplified by her aforementioned character flaws. She portrayed herself as a young virgin, yes, but the superficialities and her exaggerated class depiction also led the herders to target her specifically. Their ideology of her was perpetuated by Karin herself, who in only a small effort of jest, declared herself a princess; an idealistic opportunity for the unknown band to steal her garments and sell them to locals. Her wrongful portrayal made her a desirable victim and we are again challenged to think that the hand of God remains absent in terms of what is considered the greater good based on her short comings.
As fate would have it, the bandits are led to the house of Karin's family and it becomes clear that these men are looked down upon by the family in terms of class, evident by the vacant stares the youngest, and most visually concernable, of the three as they supper with the family. We now realize that some higher being is indeed present as chance itself could not have made such an evil presence be known by the family. Upon discovery of the herders misdoings, Karin's father acts out in rage for he was blinded by his daughter's beauty, charm, and innocence; feeling these men deserve death for taking such a pure being from the Earth and, more importantly, from his life. All three evil figureheads are killed and lie soulless in the way of the cross.
I feel that it is important to examine the sins that Bergman has laid forth in examination of our characters as almost all of those labeled deadly are inscribed within the tale. Ingeri the envious, Tore the wrathful, Karin the proud, and the herdsmen the lustful and greedy all embellish said traits and it is unclear as to whether there will be any atonement for their sins. The family is led to the body of Karin and they find her pure white figure tarnished and bloodstained. Upon removing her body, a spring begins to accumulate where she once vacantly lay and each of the family members dip their hands in it, clearly representing an act of forgiveness on the part of The Lord, in the form of a metaphorical baptism. Their sins are washed by the sacrifice of a virgin who, may not be entirely pure but was of innocence and youth. It is clear that, despite the immediate and Earthly actions of the devil unto the family that the death of young Karin served the purpose of God's plan of breathing new life into those who have followed a sinful path. While the initial confusion regarding the film's message towards spirituality is vague, Bergman gives us a universal image in which we can now see as the actions of a higher being showing care for his Earthly creations. It is unclear whether or not such an experience is a personal one for our auteur but in the terms of coping with death and looking for an explanation of one's pain and grievance, the imagery at the film's conclusion is certainly a cathartic one.