Directed by Ingmar Bergman
With Max Von Sydow (Antonius Block), Gunnar Björnstrand (Jöns), Bengt Ekerot (Death), Nils Poppe (Jof), Bibi Anderson (Mia)
There is a kind of double beginning to the film, as two completely different sequences are juxtaposed after sober opening credits. The camera first pans over a stretch of shingle bordering a quiet sea and focuses on a couple of men sleeping. One of them wakes up; he is a knight coming back from the Crusades, a tall, elegant but exhausted and worried aristocrat named Antonius Block; the other fellow is his squire, Jöns. As he is gazing at the seascape, a black-clothed person suddenly appears. It turns out to be Death, ready to carry him away. But Antonius Block cajoles Death into playing a game of chess so he gets more time to achieve an unspecified goal. The Grim Reaper oddly accepts and leaves the place as Jöns wakes up. Both riders start traveling again.
The camera then captures a small group of people sleeping inside a carriage. One of them wakes up and tries to wake the others up to tell them his dreams, but only a young lady reluctantly opens her eyes and ears. They are Jof and Mia, a couple of artists who ride from villages to villages to perform skits with the support of their companion, the self-proclaimed manager of the troupe. The camera follows them as they chat and frolic in a sunny and splendid stretch of countryside, hoping for the better while looking after Jof and Mia’s infant son.
The narrative tells how the paths of these two groups eventually intersect and alter each other’s fate. Following them means taking part to a stern survey of mediaeval Sweden as the country is wrecked by the plague. The epidemic is killing thousands and fosters both a fear of the Apocalypse and an anxious quest for salvation. Most people carry on their daily chores with fear while some choose to support or practice outrageous forms of religious devotion, from joining self-flagellating pilgrims to chasing witches. The travels and travails of the former Crusaders and the struggling entertainers offer glimpses on the epoch’s mentalities and psychologies, from the zealous men of the Church to the narrow-minded artisans. These depictions are made with strokes of grotesquerie and ribaldry and a deep sense of realism. The roving camera goes into the trademark places of the time, the church, the castle or the occasional abandoned farm, but its dramatic vision is suffused with humor thanks to dialogues and performances running the whole comical gamut, from bawdy sketches to ironic comments.
The elusive goal Antonius is chasing concerns his belief. His personal experience has led him to doubt and to examine these tragic questions that periodically assail the believer, that is, whether God exists and how He can keep quiet in the face of a world under the constant assault of evil and destruction. He still wants to believe but despondency prevails, and he is eagerly looking for a sign or a word. He obviously rejects the zeal of the Church. He can’t accept the ideas of Jöns, a pragmatist who champions a solid and cynical skepticism that guesses nothingness reigns in the hereafter and who defends the weak and the poor out of an idiosyncratic sense of humanism. Death offers no response as it would be beyond her remit.
The artists, even as they are hurt by the general angst surrounding them like anyone else, seem rather unconcerned by the kind of moral torment upsetting the knight. The so-called troupe manager is a philanderer and a bon vivant (who seduces a blacksmith’s wife and runs away with her). Jof, for his part, dreams with the eyes wide open about a bright future but also about other-worldly characters. He once claims to have seen Mary and the Child and he would later tell Mia that Death and the knight are playing chess. A funny but coward fellow, he is an easy prey for the evildoers (he is trapped in an inn by people putting the quick spread of the plague down to him but he is saved by Jöns) but his gift for seeing things others won’t dare to imagine makes him an exceptional character. He is sustained by his wife’s love; the beguiling nature of Mia comes from her attention to her husband and her son and the way she carries out her familial chores with a smiling, down-to-earth and deeply maternal fashion (that a soft cinematography nicely emphasizes).
This would bring some comfort to Antonius when his party and hers finally meet. It would enable him to find an answer to his doubt as they move through a symbolically threatening forest (accompanied by the blacksmith and his wife). The urge to save lives in full respect of a heartfelt sentiment that owes nothing to the Church or the society drives him to make the boldest move possible in his game with Death. When all is consumed, as one of his companions puts it upon the final appearance of Death, Jof, who has escaped with his family Death’s embrace, can see all the other protagonists dance in a round circle while Mia gently mocks him and once again cuddles their wonderful son.
That Death can really be fooled begs belief. That the saved one belongs to the happy few whose artistic talent is fostered by a visionary temperament is a convenient twist that easily suit the director’s own ambitions. The knight’s interrogation, whose expression is solemn to a fault, could also refer to the director’s own life, the frustrated son of a Lutheran minister. Ingmar Bergman, in this otherwise lively and compelling foray in the period pieces category, has probably put much of his persona in the film, and perhaps too much. Often considered one of those landmark movies that any true film fan should have watched, “Det sjunde inseglet – The Seventh Seal” remains stunning (the imagery is often brilliant, and the plot’s gist, that game with Death, remains intriguing), but it somehow feels stilted; the tortuous spiritual journey it shows is more emphatic than enlightening and more excessive than eloquent. It is enmeshed in its moral dilemma, for the better and the worst.