The Seventh Seal (aka Det Sjunde Inseglet)
"The Seventh Seal" is one of Ingmar Bergman's best-known films. It was released in 1957 and showcases the considerable talents of Max von Sydow as Antonius Block (the knight), Gunnar Bjornstrand as Jons (the squire), and Bengt Ekerot as death. I'm sure doctoral dissertations have been written about "The Seventh Seal," but I'll see it as a movie.
The movie is set sometime in the Middle Ages. Block was convinced to go to the Holy Land and fight for the Crusades by a certain Raval, apparently a monk or cleric. After ten years of battles, they return home, and Block is utterly disillusioned. Jons apparently was never illusioned, so he has neither qualms nor questions. The film is motivated by Block's questions about the existence or not of God. Arriving home in the midst of the plague, Block sees more death even than in the Crusades, where he lost his faith. During their wanderings, Jons comes upon Raval robbing the dead and preparing to rape a woman. The reason for their going on the Crusades is, it seems, a sham.
We follow knight and squire on their way back to Block's wife and home; as they travel they pick up various followers, including death. Block challenges death to a game of chess, which they play desultorily in the pauses of Block's travels. The knight's goals are to find the answer to his doubts whichever way it goes (God or no God) and to do some meaningful act before he dies. Block asks hard questions as he sees the panic caused by the plague, the burning of alleged witches, the mud and muck of the best life had to offer back then. Even death offers no answers. The scene where Block confesses to the monk is excellent and telling.* But Block finds no answers. He does, however, manage to sneak in a meaningful act, saving the lives of a couple and their child.
If you haven't seen this since your college years, it's more interesting now. Block's questions are very astute, and Jons's answers are funny now that you're old enough to appreciate his sarcasm and cynicism. There's a lot of humor in "The Seventh Seal," but you have to have some history of life to appreciate it. Each character in the film represents some various philosophical and religious position: doubt, faith, atheism; so "The Seventh Seal" is in some respects an allegory like "The Pilgrim's Progress."
Jons is a great foil for the knight. Witty, smart, and sarcastic, his scenes are equally meaningful. Instead of angst, the squire faces life with the assurance that there is no meaning. His songs are obscene and silly, just like his life. The squire is smart; maybe smarter than his knight. It was an act of genius for Bergman to make them equals in merit, so that their differences play off each other more meaningfully.
In two scenes the religious overtones become most obvious. Block shares wild strawberries and milk with Jof and Mia** (parents of Michael), and the knight is clearly moved by the loving relationship of the couple and their baby. He speaks at length about what sharing the food means to him. I take this to be a discourse on what may be the true nature of the eucharist and whether the sacrament is restricted to the church and the priests. Block draws great comfort from the moment of sharing the milk, wild strawberries, and fellowship.
The second scene is at the end when all the travelers have finally reached the knight's home, and his wife prepares them what is to be their last supper. Once death has appeared and announced the end of their lives, the last line of the scene is by one of the guests: "It is finished." The unanswered, and in this film unanswerable, question is whether life is as Block says a senseless horror.
*In ancient times, before giving absolution the penitent was required to be shriven or perform his or her penance. Sometimes the penance was a pilgrimage, often a recitation of a number of prayers, but the penance was to be completed before the absolution was given. In extreme circumstances - if the penitent was dying or condemned, for example - the penitent was given short shrift, then absolution. In this scene, our knight was given no shrift, and there is no absolution.
**I am confused about who Jof, Mia, and Michael are or represent. Jof is the familiar diminutive of Joseph, Mia is the diminutive of Maria, and Michael means "who resembles God." I would assume they represent Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus, but Jof has a vision of the virgin Mary and the Christchild (shown as the same age as Michael). And we later see Mia and Michael in exactly the same pose (Mary holding the child as it learns to walk). Jof also sees death, the only one to do so but for Block (at least till the end when death comes to claim the group). Jof says he sees the other reality, not the reality everyone else sees; I take it he means spiritual reality in addition to physical reality. They may represent only simple human goodness, embodied in a loving family. As presented, they have no deep questions, just love and kindness. Maybe they represent the real answer - don't ask.