“I want to ask him about God. He must know. He if anyone.” Says Knight Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow) in his search for God, to restore or eliminate what little faith remains in him after witnessing the miseries, cruelty of men and the silence of God. The one referred as him is the devil; such is his unquenchable thirst for the knowledge of god, even though he is more of a non-believer at that time. In Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, he questions God’s existence, and if He is omnipresent why He is silent amidst all the human sufferings; still the idea of a world without God haunts him. Questioning faith is an integral part of many ruminating films of Bergman. This film may be considered a predecessor to his trilogy of faith (or God’s silence).
Block is returning home from the crusades after ten long years, tired, exhausted he has grown both in age and experience, begins suspecting the presence of God as a protector. His search for Him, his questions regarding faith, God’s nature make him more detached from Him. While lying in rocky seashore, Death visits him. He challenges Death, who has been following him from some time, to game of chess. As long as Block is unbeaten Death will not touch him, and if he is beaten Death will take him. Block may go free if he is able to beat (cheat) death. Block is accompanied by his squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand) who is a free spirit, believes only what is before him.
Block continues his journey home and witnesses more misfortune of humans in the form of black plague, a woman believed to be a witch being tortured, and a man whose pretentious wife ran away. The only innocent, happy people are a juggler, his wife and their infant son. In a church while Jons is conversing with a man who is painting the dance of death, Antonius confesses his fears, disbelief to Death disguised as a priest. He then encounters the woman believed to be an accomplice of the devil who is captured and tortured by soldiers. Jons rescues a girl from a man, who is degraded due to poverty and sufferings. He takes the girl with her as a future housekeeper. Antonius meets Mia (Bibi Andersson), her husband Jof, the juggler, and their son. They along with Jons and the girl enjoy a beautiful time together, eating wild strawberries and milk, before Block again plays with Death. He slowly loses his grip over the game and consequently his life.
They are joined by Plog, the blacksmith whose wife, Lisa has run away with Jof’s boss of their three membered troupe. Block and the rest observe the burning of the so called witch by the soldiers of religion. Everyone is shocked by the spectacle. Jons urges Antonius to act but he accuses himself of being powerless. They travel through the forest and encounter the thief, now a victim himself of the plague, groaning in pain. Jof sees the knight engaged in chess with Death and flees along with his family silently, thus cheating death. They are somewhat helped by Block as he sacrifices the game, so that Death does not see them leaving. Death reminds him that their next meeting will be the ultimate for him as well as his associates.
Antonius reaches his castle where his wife, who has changed considerably from his memories of her, takes them for dinner. A fierce storm follows Jof and Mia riding their horse cart through the deep and dark forest as if Death is chasing them. Death visits the Knight in the castle; Antonius prays to God for mercy, Jons protest that this not the time for change. The girl kneels in front of death, says, “It is finished.” The family survives the storm in their cart and wakes up in beautiful day; Jof sees the dance of death in a distant hill as the Death is joined by Antonius and the others.
One of the masters of cinema, Ingmar Bergman presents us with a brooding film on human faith in God. The necessity of God is questioned; simultaneously the cruelty in the name of God is shown. He personifies death as a pale faced man wearing dark robes. His portrayal of the girl as a witch being tortured and burnt in the name of God is beautifully devastating. Antonius and Jons’ helplessness is also brought out aptly in that scene, where they are silent; much like God, who is silent in all human sufferings. The much distressed, torn by questions and reality, Antonius Block is elegantly and naturally enacted by Max Von Sydow. Gunnar Bjornstrand as the mocking, realistic and just squire Jons delivered a flying performance and so does Bibi Andersson as Mia, the wife of juggler, who is innocent, caring and simple. Bengt Ekerot as the cunning, cold Death gives a stellar act. All the other members of the cast did a great job, as all the supporting characters have a definite purpose in the film and its critical success lies much on their performances.
There are many themes explored by Bergman in this film. The question of faith and the muteness of God is the primary one. Along with it cruelty in the name of religion, human degradation in times of despair, fear of death, superiority of those powered by religion, futility of life during distress are all touched by the movie at some point. The images created by Bergman and his cinematographer Gunnar Fischer are strikingly touching, makes one ponder about the seriousness of the questions asked throughout the film. The emotions, the stillness, the cruelty, the pain of the people are shown tenderly by graceful composition of the shots. The shots are not only rich aesthetically but also convey a deeper insight in the auteur’s mind. The scene where the girl is tied for burning, the shot from above is taken as if God himself is looking down, but there is a feel of staccato in it resembling His silence and of Antonius.
The representation of Death as a clever being who cheats and is indifferent to human pleadings is an aptly portrayed. Supporting his character is his black costume contrasting with his white face and his supporting smile on getting the black pieces in chess. The themes of Christianity are mixed in every part of the film. When the seventh seal was opened, God remained silent and seven angels sounded seven trumpets marking different apocalyptic events. The final scene showing Death leading Antonius, Jons, the girl, Plog and Lisa and the troupe’s boss Skat, holding hands and dancing to the world of darkness as a huge cloud tries to consume them. The seven angels who sounded trumpets may be envisioned in these seven characters, they all at some point acted in significant way for the revelation of the major themes of the film. The film is truly a masterpiece crafted by a genius filmmaker and will forever remain in the life of people who were enlightened by it.
Film Score: 100
Director: Ingmar Bergman Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman Cinematography: Gunnar Fischer Editing: Lennart Wallen Production Design: P. A Lundgren Costume Design: Manne Lindholm Music: Erik Nordgren Cast: Max Von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Bibi Andersson, Bengt Ekerot