(I promised myself that I'd give my inner movie critic an outlet on this blog, so this new series is an attempt to fulfill that promise.)
That scene is a microcosm of what makes Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal a great movie. Faced by the reality of his own impending death, a disillusioned knight plays chess with Death in order to stall for time to perform one meaningful deed, while hoping to find certain knowledge of God's existence along the way. The knight, who has returned from a bloody crusade to find his native Sweden being ravaged by the Black Death, cannot fathom the idea that there is no God, but looks at the horrors of the world and sees no evidence that He does exist. Serious questions of faith and existence are pondered at length, both in the knight's quest for repentance and in his squire's scoffing, sardonic black humor.
I've long thought that this film would make an excellent introduction to a college philosophy class on the subject of Existentialism.* The knight, Antonius Block, is a very good representation of Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith in Fear and Trembling. The questions posed by the film are as serious as any posed in the works of Sartre or Camus, only a lot more accessible.** Questions of faith and atheism are addressed seriously and with the respect they deserve.
Turning away from philosophy for a moment, there's a lot to be said about the cinematography and writing in the film. Say what you want about Ingmar Bergman,***
but the film just looks and sounds epic. Max von Sydow's reputation as an actor was made by Bergman in this film, and it's simply astonishing to see the then-26-year-old von Sydow carrying the lead role with such gravitas. Particularly moving is the scene where the knight and his squire witness the execution of a young girl accused (by the church, of course) of being a witch, consorting with the devil, and spreading the plague:
Of course, as an atheist, I'm inclined to agree with the squire's point of view. I can't be certain about the existence of God or lack thereof, as the squire appears to be, but I do think it's incredibly unlikely that any God exists, let alone a particular one embraced by a specific religion. That doesn't prevent me from sympathizing with the knight, who desperately wants to find some greater meaning in the universe and believes (wrongly, I think) that there can be no such meaning without a God to bestow it.**** The fact that the knight does, in fact, perform a meaningful act of service at the end of the film (I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen the film) is proof positive that he is mistaken, and I find it tragic that the knight doesn't seem to comprehend that.
This has gotten very philosophical, but the film insists upon being taken seriously as a work of art, and as a philosophical dialogue. However, in order to not glaze over everyone's eyes once again, I think the next installment of this film review series will probably be something like The Godfather or maybe a so-bad-it's-good flick like Plan 9 from Outer Space. Stay tuned.
*I have taken such a class myself, and regrettably, exactly zero films were shown in the entire course.
**If you doubt the veracity of that claim, try reading Sartre's Being and Nothingness and then get back to me.
***And there's a lot to be said. For instance, Bergman's critiques of fellow filmmakers often bordered on outrageous. Calling Jean-Luc Godard "a fucking bore" and Citizen Kane "a total bore" are both insults so ignorant in their content as to be ridiculous. I may not know all that much, but I do know that most of Jean-Luc Godard's films are pretty good, and Citizen Kane, whatever else it may be, sure as hell isn't boring. But I digress.
****The best expression yet of the idea that there can be meaning without God, even if we ourselves create it, is certainly Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, which I highly recommend.