Being an atheist, I have always found it challenging to review a religious movie, because I worry that my criticism will be more about religion than about the movie. This difficulty is compounded if it is not clear what the attitude of those who produced the movie is toward that religion, whether they intended the movie to be a criticism of religion or a defense of it. In other words, it is not clear to me whether The Virgin Spring, a movie directed by Ingmar Bergman, looks upon the simple faith of some fourteenth century peasants in the same way that parents will smile at their child’s belief in Santa Claus, or whether the movie actually shares that faith in God and encourages us to do likewise.
Anyway, as I said, there is this fourteenth century family of Swedish peasants headed by Töre (Max von Sydow). His daughter is Karin, who is a blonde virgin. Well, her body may be pure, but her soul is not. She is lazy, vain, and spoiled, smug in the fact that she is so cute and adorable that she can do as she pleases. She has a foster sister, Ingeri, who is a brunette, a bastard soon to give birth to a bastard of her own. The two of them set out for church to do something or other, and on the way it turns out that the other night Karin was flirting with the man that got Ingeri pregnant. Though there is no hope that he will marry Ingeri, yet Karin’s dalliance with him infuriates Ingeri. Just to rub it in, Karin taunts Ingeri for no longer being a virgin, while gloating over the way she will someday be married in all her virginal purity.
They get separated, and soon after Karin comes upon three goat herders that rape and murder her. The men strip her body of her beautiful clothes. Later, they ask for lodging at Töre’s house, not realizing he is Karin’s father. That night, they present Karin’s clothing to her mother as a gift, saying it belonged to their sister. She tells Töre about it. He asks Ingeri what she knows, and she admits that she witnessed the rape and murder and feels guilty because she wanted Karin to get her comeuppance. Töre then murders the three goat herders, one of whom was just a boy, who had nothing to do with what happened to Karin. Then Töre feels guilty for having committed murder. The whole family goes out to where Karin’s body lies dead. When they find her, Töre raises the ancient problem of evil, asking why God let this happen and then let him commit murder, while at the same time saying that he begs God’s forgiveness.
Now, this is what I was talking about. Are we supposed to approve of Töre’s attitude or should we be disgusted? I mean, I’m disgusted. In fact, it is even a little disgusting that he had to wait until his daughter was raped and murdered before questioning how an all-powerful, loving God could let this happen. After all, God has been standing by and letting girls get raped and murdered for centuries, and it is only now, when his daughter is a victim, that he takes exception to God’s indifference.
It gets worse. Töre promises to build a church on the spot where Karin died, in hopes of being worthy of God’s forgiveness. Then, when they lift up her body, water begins to gush from the ground where she lay, becoming a spring. The family treats the water as if it is a miracle, a replenishing gift from God. That’s right. Karin’s rape and murder have been worth it, because now we are going to get a church with a little spring nearby. Perhaps I should point out that there is no shortage of water in that area, the family having crossed a large stream on their way to get to Karin, so it is not as though the spring will bring needed water to a parched region. It’s just more water.
Here we go again. I don’t know whether we are supposed to regard that spring as a real miracle or not. If it is a miracle, then we have to wonder: as long as God was willing to perform a miracle, why didn’t he miraculously save Karin instead? If it is not a miracle, are we supposed to despise or admire the family for thinking it is one?
I give up. I’ll have to let someone who actually believes in God tell me what I am supposed to make of this movie.