Jungfrukallan (The Virgin Spring, 1960) is a strange film; Bergman himself considers it an anomaly in his filmography, and barely mentions it in either of his memoirs. Most other critics dismiss it as simpleminded religious propaganda, with Bergman directing a script he didn't write (Ulla Isaksson did, from an old religious ballad).
It's a mix of the old Bergman (touches from Det Sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957), use of the high-contrast lighting characteristic of his '50s films, and a more than generous helping of Kurosawa's Rashomon dolloped on top) with hints and intimations of the new (the presence of Sven Nykvist, collaborating for the first time with Bergman as sole cinematographer (but before they have developed the bleak, shadowless light of Såsom i en spegel (Through a Glass Darkly, 1961)), the way pagan nature is in constant struggle with ascending Christianity).
But it's fascinating for all that, not the least for being a transitional film, and for being a film where Bergman teeters the razor's edge between religious faith and secular disbelief. It's also, far as I can see, his most driven film, in the sense that every detail, every gesture and expression, every word uttered is mustered to push forward and intensify a simple narrative, that of a rape and murder and consequent vengeance.
But that's surface; underneath you sense roiling undercurrents. Take the character of the foster sister Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom) contrasted with the favored daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson). Ingeri at first glance is miserable, unkempt, morose, swollen both with child and with a seething jealousy of Karin; Karin is beautiful, serene, innocent, charming, happy. Scratch the surface, though, and you notice that charming, innocent Karin is something of a conceited monster, able to turn her doting parents round her pretty little finger, yet too simple to realize what the hungry expressions of the goatherders surrounding her really mean. Ingeri, while envious, is grounded in reality; there's no pretension or delusion to her, she's aware of her disgraced position in life, and of the sometimes beautiful, sometimes threatening world around her, far more acutely aware of this than Karin ever was, or ever will be. One is already soiled; the other, thanks to the way Bergman presents her unclouded self-absorption, is just crying out for soiling.
It's the sign of a master at his peak (or at one of his several peaks), I think, that Bergman uses even secondary traits to amplify his effects. The rape of Karin is hardly explicit, especially in these jaded times, but there's still power to the scene, mainly because of the careful way Bergman prepares it. Her ravishing would not be so upsetting if she were merely a good and obedient child, I submit; by presenting her as a self-indulgent brat, Bergman adds a dimension of psychological plausibility that brings the character to life, makes us believe in her as a person--surely all that love and nurture poured into a youth will not make that youth a saint, but the opposite.
And it results in a more dramatic contrast, that Bergman is able to begin the film with us slightly appalled at just how spoiled Karin is, at just how much we (alongside Ingeri) badly want her pulled off her pedestal, then gradually drawing us into the position of empathizing with her when she is thrown down on the ground and brutalized. It's not a matter of blood spilled or nudity shown or bodily fluids squirted out of this or that orifice, but of strange little details--the stretch of thigh glimpsed as one goatherd mounts her, for example, shockingly erotic in its suddenness; the way her head, its expression of despair absurdly upside down, slides down along a tree trunk, like that of a helpless animal being butchered; the awful silence in which the whole thing happens; the way branches are angled and arranged, so that they look like malevolent hands surrounding her, clutching her, holding her down for our delectation.
As Karin's circumstance changes so does Ingeri's. This fallen woman, already with child and worshipping a strange god (Odin, Norse god of war), realizes that the fate she wishes upon Karin is too awful even for her to contemplate, and tries desperately to make amends. Her situation is almost as pathetic as Karin's as she watches the rape, the rock she raised in Karin's defense dropped uselessly down the bank of the stream to splash in the water (we hear the plop, but not the rock's bumpy drop). Karin, ever the child, finally learns self-pity in her too-short life; Ingeri in turn learns empathy, compassion, remorse for others, and eventually perhaps entertains the possibility of redemption.
Then there're the goatherders. They represent pagan anarchy tramping Christian piety (the candles Karin carried, on her way to church), but they're not a monolithic lot; the child (Ove Porath) in Isaksson's script was complicit with the rape (Bergman had asked her to add psychological depth to the original ballad), is on film directed by Bergman to be a relative innocent--abused by his older brothers, appalled at what he sees them do. If Karin is Christian innocence, the boy is her pagan equivalent, and if we felt sorry for Karin when she was assaulted, we feel equally sorry for the boy when he finds himself forced to enter the house of the girl they had wronged (an unbelievably stupid act only it seems to have an oddly plausible air of effrontery to it, as if the goatherds were daring Karin's parents to suss them out), eat the bread of her parents, listen to the very words of prayer she uttered before she died repeated at the dinner table. His vomiting the food offered to him is his way of rejecting his brothers' violence and hypocrisy, rejecting the foolishness of all adults, rejecting the notion that he deserves any kind of nourishment when the poor girl lies outside, stiffening in the cold ground. His death at the hands of Tore (Max Von Sydow), Karin's father, is perhaps almost as appalling, and elicits a not unsimilar pity, as Karin's.
Tore, of course, is the pagan-Christian tension personified. He's reluctant to pray, but perfectly willing to let his only daughter ride several miles through dark woods to deliver candles to a church (the very hubris of their act--that they allow her to ride with no other escort than Ingeri, who is pregnant--also implies that they, like Karin, are just crying out for punishment). When he learns of his daughter's death he rises up in an unchristian manner, prepares himself samurai-like with purification rituals and a brief wrestling match with a small birch (whipping himself with its branches afterwards), and exacts revenge. This is Old Testament righteousness: an eye for an eye, and no talk of turned cheeks; after killing the boy, though, he expresses ambivalence--he questions God's indifference and incomprehensibility (but not, significantly, his possible non-existence), and arrives at what I see as a near-existential act of penance--God may or may not care, but he'll build a church there, where his daughter died, with his bare hands.
God's response--a spring welling up from where the daughter died--I see as ambiguous as well. Is He saying with the spring "I can live with what you said; peace." Or is he mocking Tore's doubts with a miracle ("You doubt me? Here's a spring; go bottle it and sell it to tourists")? Or is it pagan nature (the same nature Bergman later in his career held in such high regard), responding to Tore's request for forgiveness with a sign of hope and renewal? A simple religious ballad, turned, or so critics of the time thought, into a simple religious film (it was a flop in secular Sweden and skeptical France, but a huge hit in the more religious United States--where it won Bergman an Oscar for Best Foreign Film). Not all that simple, I say (Oscar statue notwithstanding); I think there is something bubbling up from underneath.
Postscript: and like some bleak plot twist straight out of a Bergman (or this director's, or would it be more like Bunuel?) film, Michelangelo Antonioni dies. Have not had the opportunity to write anything substantial on the man, unfortunately, but films like Blow Up (1966) and Il Deserto rosso (The Red Desert, 1964) remain unforgettably hallucinatory memories, and L'Avventura (1960, made the same year as this Bergman film) remains one of the saddest, most moving summations of our age I've ever seen.