In the darkness of a breaking dawn, a lascivious, unmarried, expectant woman named Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom) dispassionately performs her morning ritual: preparing a fire on the stove, opening the roof door in order to allow the daylight to stream in, invoking the Norse god Odin in an envious and vengeful plea. In another room, the feudal landowner Töre (Max von Sydow) and his wife Märeta (Birgitta Valberg) solemnly recite their morning prayers and perform a symbolic act of penitence in remembrance of Jesus Christ’s suffering, before joining the tenant farmers and servants at the communal table. Their coddled, fanciful, and vain daughter, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), is noticeably absent from the breakfast table after spending a late evening at the village dance, and Märeta is quick to excuse her oversleeping as a symptom of an ensuing illness. Töre reminds Märeta of Karin’s obligation to bring the Virgin Mary candles to church, and criticizes Märeta’s excessive leniency towards their only surviving child. Karin reluctantly awakens and eventually agrees to bring the candles to church, but only after cajoling Märeta into allowing her to wear a lavish and elaborate dress that has been set aside for the church offering. Accompanied by Ingeri, Karin journeys through the dark and ominous forest and soon finds her faith and humanity tested when she encounters a desperate, lawless, and morally bankrupt band of goat herdsmen.
Adapted from a fourteenth century Swedish legend by screenwriter and novelist Ulla Isaksson, The Virgin Spring is a harrowing, yet ultimately affirming portrait of faith, humanity, and atonement. Using chiaroscuro imagery that interplays light and shadows, Ingmar Bergman reflects the process of spiritual illumination in the transitional era of the Middle Ages where mysticism, amorality, and paganism coexisted with the period of intellectual, artistic, and religious enlightenment: the opening image of Ingeri performing her chores that transitions into an illuminated crucifix as Töre and Märeta pray; the physical dissimilarity between the fair haired Karin and the dark haired “adopted” Ingeri; the stark visual contrast between the dark and claustrophobic interiors of the farmhouse and the sunlit path along the stream; the light precipitation of snow after the brothers’ unconscionable act. As Ingeri (the allusional fallen sinner, Mary Magdalene) becomes a witness to the manifestation of secular discord and divine grace, she follows her own figurative path from religious darkness and moral bankruptcy to a state of spiritual baptism and enlightenment.
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