With the exception of his elderly housekeeper Miss Agda who he treats almost like a surrogate platonic wife, widowed seventy-eight year old Dr. Isak Borg, a former medical doctor and professor, has retreated from any human contact, partly his own want but partly the decision of others who do not want to spend time with him because of his cold demeanor. He is traveling from his home in Stockholm to Lund to accept an honorary degree. Instead of flying as was the original plan, he decides to take the day long drive instead. Along for the ride is his daughter-in-law Marianne, who had been staying with him for the month but has now decided to go home. The many stops and encounters along the way make him reminisce about various parts of his life. Those stops which make him reminisce directly are at his childhood summer home, at the home of his equally emotionally cold mother, and at a gas station where the attendants praise him as a man for his work. But the lives of other people they encounter almost mirror his own, including hitchhikers Sara, Viktor and Anders – who remind him of his cousin Sara who he was going to marry, himself and his irresponsible brother Sigfrid who Sara eventually married – a bickering married couple Sten and Berit Alman, and Marianne and her husband and Isak’s son Evald, whose marriage is as strained as was his own.
The movie opens when 78-year-old Isak Borg, played by Victor Sjöström, is in bed at home. He dreams about being on a city street with no other people present. A clock hanging above the street has no hands. Isak checks his pocket watch; it too has no hands. A figure appears with its back turned. Isak walks up to the figure and touches it. It has no face. The figure collapses onto the pavement. Blood streams out of the figure. Next a hearse drawn by a team of horses turns a corner and enters the street on which the dream-Isak is standing. It approaches Isak and then passes him but its rear wheel gets caught on a lamppost. Although no one is driving the hearse, the horses continue forward. The left rear wheel breaks off at the lamppost. The horses and hearse drive away but the coffin comes loose, and slides out and onto the street. A hand appears on the outside of the coffin. Isak looks at the hand. His hand and the hand outstretched from the coffin touch, with the hand coming out of the coffin holding Isak. The body in the coffin is also Isak. He awakes.The viewer senses the loneliness in Isak. And that Isak's time is running out. These are themes that come up again and again through the day.He leaves his bedroom to waken his maid Agda, played by Jullan Kindahl. Isak asks her to pack his suitcase and prepare breakfast for him. He has decided to drive to Lund, where he will later today receive an honorary doctorate as an award for his contributions to medicine. They squabble because they had previously planned to fly from Stockholm to Lund. While eating breakfast, Marianne, Isak's daughter-in-law, enters the breakfast room. She is played by Ingrid Thulin. Marianne has been staying at Isak's house, and asks if she can accompany Isak on the 300-mile drive from Stockholm to Lund. He agrees.They depart. Marianne tries to smoke but Isak objects. There is some tension in the car almost from the beginning of the trip. They manage to converse. Isak mentions that his son, Evald, owes his father money, and on principle is going to pay it back, a principle both father and son endorse. Marianne talks about her relationship with Evald, who, like his father, is a physician. A good deal is revealed, especially in a flashback that summarizes the conversation in the car. Her marriage to Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand) is tense and unhappy. Evald is as rigid as Isak but Evald dislikes his father. Evald and Marianne quarreled sharply when she revealed to him that she was pregnant. He objected, and said he did not want children. Isak's marriage was also an unhappy one. At this particular juncture, the viewer develops a sense of the film's power of truth-telling.Isak decides to make a detour, and drives to the house where, during his youth, he spent many summers. One could find in the summer house his mother and father and 10 brothers and sisters as well as visiting cousins, uncles, and aunts. Marianne goes off to swim in the lake, leaving Isak alone. He walks up to a patch of wild strawberries (the Swedish title of the film better translates to "wild strawberry patch"). Isak begins remembering his youthful days at the house and the land nearby. Flashbacks with Isak still in the scene show some of what life was like there long ago. His cousin Sara is picking wild strawberries to give to her deaf uncle as a birthday present when Sigfrid (Per Sjöstrand), Isak's brother, arrives. Sigfrid helps her pick strawberries and flirts with her. They kiss. She is at first willing but then breaks away. She is too committed to the young Isak to continue the dalliance. Isak at that moment is away with his father fishing in the lake.At the lunch table, Isak's twin sisters, who are loud and naive, report on the interlude between Sara and Sigfrid, embarrassing Sara. One of the twins is played by director Ingmar Bergman's daughter. The older Isak looks in on the scene. Sara, upset, leaves the table, and is consoled by her aunt, with Isak looking on. Sara describes how she thinks Isak is too good for her. He is too upright. Sigfrid is more playful.The viewer learns that Isak was in love with Sara but ultimately she married his brother Sigfrid. Isak is the last of the 10 Borg children alive. Sara, Sigfrid's widow, is still alive and in her 70s.Near the house, a teenage girl and two boys come into the scene. One is her boyfriend and the other is a kind of chaperone. They are hitchhiking. Their ultimate destination is Italy. The girl, whose name is also Sara, is played by Bibi Andersson (Bibi Andersson and Ingrid Thulin have long been part of Bergman's company of players). Andersson also plays the Sara who was Isak's long-ago love. Of course, the present-Sara reminds Isak of his long-ago, and lost, Sara. The boys, Anders (Folke Sundquist) and Viktor (Björn Bjelfvenstam), argue about the existence of God and other matters, and Sara tries to keep their arguments civil. Although one boy is closer to Sara than the other, the viewer gets the sense that both are interested in her, much the way Sigfrid and Isak were interested in the Sara of long ago but only one will succeed with her.Back on the road, a Volkswagon beetle comes hurtling around a bend, and nearly crashes into Isak's big old Packard. Isak's black car is reminiscent of a hearse. The VW turns over but the passengers are unhurt, physically that is. The man (Gunnar Sjöberg) and woman (Gunnel Broström) in the car are a married couple almost out of Strindberg. The accident, the husband admits, was the result of driving while quarreling.Isak agrees to put the two in the car, and drive on toward Lund. The husband and wife are settled into jumper seats but continue to bicker. The husband needles the wife incessantly. She smacks him several times. Marianne, who is driving, stops the car, and orders the two to exit the car for the sake of the young people riding in the back.The car, now reduced to five travelers, stops at a service station that is run by a husband (Max von Sydow) and wife (Ann-Marie Wiman). Here we learn about another side of Isak. The couple is very happy to see Isak. Apparently long ago he worked some wonderful medicine to help the family. They admire him greatly, and absolutely refuse to let him pay for the gas or any of the work they did on the car. She is pregnant, and plans to name her child, if it is a son, Isak, after the doctor. Isak asks them to notify him when the child is born. He would like to be the child's godfather.They soon stop at a restaurant. The group has a delightful lunch at an outdoor terrace overlooking the beautiful Lake Vättern. Isak enjoys the company of the young people. The young people learn about Isak's award.There is another stop on the journey. At Isak's request, Marianne drives to the house of his ancient mother. Her house is en route. Marianne accompanies Isak into the house, and the young people remain in the car. Isak's mother is in her mid-90s and complains that she is always cold and that none of her grandchildren visit her. Mrs. Borg shows them some old artifacts from an earlier era, old toys and a pocket watch with no hands, the same pocket watch that appeared in Isak's dream at the beginning of the film. Later in the car, Marianne tells Isak how she is impressed by the mother's coldness. Marianne senses how that coldness runs through the family down to Evald.Isak falls asleep in the car while Marianne drives. He dreams that he is being given an examination by a professor of medicine. The professor is none other than the man Marianne asked to leave the car earlier that day. The cadaver he is to check is the man's wife but she isn't dead. Isak fails the examination. Perhaps it was not a medical school examination at all but an examination of how a lonely and aloof man lived his life. He awakes.The car has stopped. The young people have gone into a forest glen to gather flowers to make a bouquet for Isak. He is flattered by their attention.They reach Lund. Evald is in his home to greet them. Agda is there too although she was so angry in the morning that there was a chance she would not come. The three young people come. Isak, Marianne, and Evald dress for the ceremony which is an hour away. The young people plant themselves along the route of the processional to cheer Isak. The ceremony expresses great dignity and achievement, with many words uttered in Latin.Afterwards Isak is in Evald and Marianne's house although the viewer has the feeling that it is not going to be Marianne's house much longer. Isak tries to induce Agda to call him by his first name; after all they have known each other for 40 years. She declines.Isak is in bed in a second-floor bedroom. The young people serenade Isak from the garden below. He wishes them well as they got a lift to Hamburg and are closer yet to their goal of reaching Italy.Evald comes in. Isak wants Evald to forget about the debt. Isak also wants Evald and Marianne to reconcile. Marianne enters the room, and she and Isak have an affectionate exchange. The she heads off to party with Evald. The viewer gets a sense that Isak has to some extent broken through his loneliness and reconciled with the important people in his life.