The subject of Bergman's Virgin Spring comes up literally every time we discuss the great Swede's work, and thus far I have failed entirely to deal with it in any satisfactory degree. Allow me to sketch in writing the rebuttal which I am utterly inept at communicating verbally.
It is true that The Virgin Spring is not patently anti-religious the way the Silence of God trilogy (which follows it) is, but instead is simply (in a restricted and admittedly ambivalent sense) anti-Christian. It is significant that the story comes from a 13th century Swedish ballad, and is one of very few of Bergman's 62 films which he did not write himself. There are salient issues of the plot which we must get straight before we can proceed: first, there is the issue of Sweden's transition from paganism to Christianity. The family in the film is a recent convert to Christianity, which makes them by no means common people for the time period. They have two daughters: one extremely Christian who is actively involved in the Church (the "light" child), the other "dark," who still worships Odin (a god whose purview is war and death) and who is unmarried and pregnant and adopted besides. The light child is raped and murdered (on her way to church, no less) while the dark child watches. The father murders the murderers, then at the end vows that although he cannot understand his new God, he will build a church at the site of his daughter's death, where a spring now flows. He asks God for forgiveness, though he hears no answer, and asks why God would allow such horrible things to happen. God is silent.
The assertion has been made that because of the ending, this is somehow a Christian film. Bergman was by no means a declarative filmmaker, but rather a procedural one: his films do not demonstrate his already developed beliefs but instead demonstrate how he works through their problems. In this sense, Virgin Spring is very much a transitional film, both in terms of its position in Bergman's overall body of work (not to mention philosophical development) but also in terms of the subject matter which concerns the historical clash of two religions, as well as undertones of modernity and barbarity. The audience is left to wonder first, if God exists, why allow the rape and murder of an innocent? Is the construction of a church really adequate penance for killing three people? Is the creation of an apparently miraculous spring really adequate compensation for the rape and murder of a daughter? If God is all-powerful, why play this apparently sadistic game which has ended four lives and ruined two others to apparently no purpose? When the father exercises his hardly-Christian revenge (there is not much forgiveness or turning of other cheeks in this film) isn't that simply a vindication of the poverty of Christian ideology and its inability to disguise a) the deep-seated cultural structure which would have previously made the father's pagan revenge legitimate and b) the basic human impulse towards violence and vengeance? It would appear instead that when put to a real world test, Christianity does not trump paganism for congruence with human impulse. Instead it is artificial, unsatisfying, unnatural, and ultimately the sort of false consciousness of ideology which Marx so clearly demonstrated it to be.
Instead, we have a film about man's (and God's, to the extent that man has invented him) powerlessness against the darkness within and outside him. In the clash of these two religions, the one that most closely recognizes and capitalizes on the inherent misery of the world and of mankind triumphs.
(On a purely technical note, it is worth hastening not to overlook Bergman's structural genius: consider the motif of images of fire and body, that the film bracketed by prayers to different silent gods and by images of the pure child "sleeping late," the literal image of the pure girl moving from a small outpost of "civilization" to dark woods, the theme of watching (the boy watches the rape, the mother watches the revenge, the dark child watches both), the use of fire and sword in vengeance, and the murderers who die in crucifixion poses...somewhere Freud would be delighted).
It is also significant that this film was made during one of the happiest times of Bergman's life: apparently this is as close as he comes to expressing joy. Yet it is a mistake to locate the central thrust of Bergman's work on this film. It was made before the far more nihilist and antitheist Silence of God trilogy, and decades before he began his intense personal dramas which characterized the last thirty years of his output. In 1960 he still had dozens of masterpieces left to create, and judging his entire output by the philosophical ambiguity he explores in this relatively early film is like judging from Marx's praise of the productive genius of capitalism in the Manifesto that his entire body of thought is similar to that of Milton Friedman. Instead we get to see Bergman moving by stages away from his strict, brutal Protestant upbringing to pure nihilism, and in that process, Virgin Spring is a critical step. Certainly there is a lot of Christianity in the film, but that does not make the film itself Christian, nor does it begin to suggest that Bergman was himself a conservative deist. Instead Bergman's worldview can more accurately be summed up by an extract from Cries and Whispers. After the final, slow, painful, agonizing death of one sister from cancer, her emotionally devastated other sisters (following an hour and a half of hatred, bitterness, blood, and recriminations) read an extract from her diary in which she writes about a perfect day in the autumn, when the pain was not so bad, and the four women took up their parasols and walked in the garden. "This is happiness," she writes. "I cannot wish for anything better." That is Bergman's philosophy: that we are meaningless people leading meaningless lives on a constant march towards inevitable death, destined only to hurt those we care about most, utterly alone, and the most we can hope for is a brief moment in which the pain is not so bad.
The "dance with death" which ends The Seventh Seal is also a common fixture of our discussions which I utterly fail to dispel. Fortunately, the Almighty Wiki can help:
The point of The Seventh Seal is the universality of death. We use our reason to rationalize and justify our lives and postpone them as long as possible, but it's ultimately useless. Death comes for everyone regardless, the only question is how long the game will last.
I hope I've done better with this defense than I usually do verbally. I am interested in rebuttals.