The Seventh Seal comes across as director Ingmar Bergman’s meditation on the meaning of life and death, and the question of whether there really is an afterlife. Unless I missed something, he never gives a firm opinion one way or the other, but instead leaves the matter open-ended.

Max von Sydow plays Antonius Block, a knight returning from the Crusades to his native Sweden in the 14th century. Gunnar Bjornstrand is his squire Jõns, a man whose level of cynicism is an equal for Antonius’ idealism. Unfortunately for both, the middle of the 14th century is less than an ideal time for a visit home since the land is currently being ravaged by the bubonic plague. After Antonius and Jõns park their horses on the seashore to catch a quick 40 winks, Antonius awakens to encounter a figure (Bengt Ekerot) dressed in black with a stark white face. “I am Death,” states the figure ominously, destroying any last hope he was just one of those wacked-out goth kids. Antonius does the only logical thing and stalls matters by challenging him to a game of chess. Apparently Death is a sucker for a good chess match, because he accepts immediately. Start practicing your Queen’s Gambit opening.

While Death and Antonius are locked in mental combat, we meet a traveling acting troupe composed of Jof (Nils Poppe), his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), and their friend Skat. For those keeping track, Mia is a Babe with a capital B. She and Jof are far from rich, but they share a deep love and a hearty dose of cheerful optimism. He is a bit of a dreamer, and claims he can occasionally see supernatural visions. Although she remains skeptical, she finds his mischievous manner charming in its own right. The happy couple have an infant son named Michael.

Jõns’ reaction to his part in the Crusades is typically revealing. He tells an artist he meets, “Our crusade was so stupid that only an idealist could have thought it out.” The artist reflects upon man’s fascination with death when he notes, “A skull is more interesting than a naked woman.” (If this is true, why doesn’t this website receive more hits than the porn sites?) In a following scene, Jõns encounters Raval, the seminarist who persuaded Antonius to go off and fight in the Crusades in the first place. Raval now makes his living as a petty thief. Ouch.

During a break from the chess game, Antonius enters a monastery and kneels outside the confessional. Unaware that Death is the one listening on the other side of the grating, Antonius admits his doubt of the existence of a God or an afterlife. “Perhaps there is no one there,” purrs Death in reply.

“Then life is a senseless terror. My whole life has been a meaningless search,” Antonius despairs. “But I want to use my respite [from death] for one significant action.” Later, he and Jõns witness a woman being burned alive for having “carnal knowledge with the evil one.” As she slowly succumbs, they search in vain for any sign in her eyes of crossing over from this world to another. But all they see is a blank empty stare.

Despite its deep subject matter, the film is not without an occasional sense of humor. When a feuding blacksmith and his wife make up romantically, Jõns watches from the sidelines. Before every step of the ritual, he cynically spells out what each person will say and do, followed immediately by the person doing exactly as he predicted. Then shortly after, while Skat is hiding high up in a tree, Death comes along with a saw and cuts it down.

“Death,” as W. H. Auden wrote, “is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic.” Throughout The Seventh Seal, death’s inevitability hangs over the proceedings like a dark cloud. When Jof and Mia are performing on stage for the villagers, their song is interrupted by a procession of religious zealots slowly shuffling through the streets. As their musical chanting fills the air, some flog themselves with leather cords while others shoulder huge wooden crosses in the hope such self-punishment will atone for their sins. The leader sternly warns the villagers, “God is punishing us. We shall all perish by the Black Death.” Talk about spoiling the mood of the party. As the procession heads away, Bergman dissolves from the procession to the empty street, as if to remind us that after all the sound and fury, man’s presence on the earth is only temporary. Later, Antonius shares a bowl of strawberries and milk with Mia while Jof plays his lute. As they happily sit on the grass in the warm sun, a skull mask (worn by Skat earlier in the film) hangs on a post in the background and sways in the breeze. Distant thunder at a picnic, indeed.

Near the film’s end, Death has become impatient with Antonius’s stalling tactics, and demands the chess game be finished. As Antonius sees his position becoming increasingly hopeless, he tries the old “knock over the chess pieces” trick. Death, being no fool, remembers where the pieces were and resets the board. But what Death doesn’t realize is that Antonius’s distraction was not to aid himself but to allow Mia and Jof to escape at full bore in their wagon. And so Antonius succeeds in outwitting Death, not for his own sake but to prolong the lives of his newfound friends. Cool.

I’m not quite sure what to make of one element of this film (“Only one?” the readers ask). There’s a haunting shot at the very beginning of a hawk suspended motionless in the sky as it rides the updrafts along the shore. The concept is repeated later, when Jof tells Mia that their son Michael will be able to perform the greatest juggling trick of them all: to hold a ball suspended in mid-air. The obvious allusion (in my mind anyway) is to victory over death – falling back to earth being symbolic of the decline leading to the end of life. Before you accuse me of being on the pipe, let me point out that Jof has a vision early in the film of the Virgin Mary teaching her son Jesus to walk. Later, when Antonius first lays eyes on Mia, she is teaching her son to walk in a very similar manner. It doesn’t help matters that the subtitles translate “Jof” and “Mia” into Joseph and Mary. But if we accept that Bergman really is implying some type of connection between Jof and Mia and Joseph and Mary, it’s not readily apparent how it fits in with the overall skeptical tone of the rest of the film.

After Death wins the chess match, Antonius travels back to his castle accompanied by Jõns. There, with his wife and others gathered around the dining table, Antonius hears a knock at the castle door. In a scene reminiscent of Poe’s Mask of the Red Death, Death enters the castle and all who are within its walls are infected with the black plague. One question which this scene raises is whether Antonius (who was already destined to die) spreads the plague to others by returning to his castle. My guess is that this wasn’t what Bergman intended (Antonius is, after all, of a heroic nature), but the implication is present none-the-less. In the final scene, Jof has another vision where he sees Death leading a dancing parade of the newly departed along a hillside. The apparent merriment of the participants appears to be Bergman’s way of saying that death, in the end, is not as fearsome as it seems.