Plot: Tore (Max von Sydow) is a simple farmer, but he is able to provide a good life for his family, especially his beloved daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson). He spoils her without question, dressing her in fine clothes and letting her be a free spirit, though this approach doesn’t please everyone. Her half sister Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom) is unwed, but pregnant and envies the attention Karin is given, as she isn’t treated with the same level of care and love. As if the jealousy wasn’t enough, Ingeri even wishes harm upon her half sister, to the point she invokes a pagan curse on Karin. She is also tasked to escort Karin as she delivers ceremonial candles to the church and of course, Karin has a new dress to mark the occasion. On the road, the two encounter some eerie goat herdsmen and when they decide to take liberties with Karin, while Ingeri hides and watches the violence unfold. Will Ingeri continue to hide as her half sister is tormented and if so, will the horrific assault go unpunished?
Entertainment Value: The Virgin Spring is based on an ancient ballad and if the premise sounds familiar, it is likely because you’ve seen or heard about one of the movies that retells this narrative. Perhaps the most famous is The Last House on the Left, in which Wes Craven weaves the tale about two teens going to a rock concert, only to run into violent miscreants. Ingmar Bergman’s version deals with rape, murder, and revenge, but takes a much less salacious and exploitative approach, so this is not horror in the least, much more arthouse than grindhouse. The subject matter is still unsettling and hard to watch at times, but Bergman handles it with taste and discretion, never for mere shock or spectacle. The tone is dark and somber, as you’d expect given the nature of the material, with stark visuals and minimal dialogue, which really allows the mood and atmosphere to be the focus. There is some light as the movie winds down, in the vision of slight hope, but this is overall an oppressive and likely depressing experience, as you might expect from Bergman. I think The Virgin Spring is well crafted in every respect and for those who appreciate masterful cinema, but don’t mind a downbeat tone, this one is highly recommended.
The cast is excellent here, with powerful, effective performances across the board and it is an ensemble piece of sorts, as no one has the central role and most of the prominent cast members have ample time on screen. The most memorable performance belongs to Max von Sydow however, who is able to do so much without a lot of dialogue, relying on facial expressions and general presence. In the film’s final scenes, he simply shines and brings such a powerful presence to the role, commanding the screen and being fully in the moment for the character. A lot of the performance is subtle or even internal, but von Sydow conveys all the emotion the character needs, without turning things into melodrama. That would have been easy to do, given the high emotion of the finale, but he keeps the balance up throughout. Birgitta Pettersson is also memorable as the ill fated Karin, the spoiled daughter who has charisma, but you can feel the entitlement dripping from her presence. The performance is a terrific one and it had to be a tough role, to say the least. The cast also includes Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitta Valberg, Axel Duberg, and Allan Edwall.