To believe is to suffer. It is like loving someone in the dark that never answers.
Diversion once meant, and still means in many Latinate languages, something that amuses not simply distracts or wards off the ills of the world; it has since been replaced by a terse and ambiguous word that has so many uses as to obliterate its primary purpose – that of diversion. Fun is what moments and memories we enjoy of life, and we wish ourselves as many of these occurrences as possible. But what fun exactly entails will have to remain a personal matter. For some, fun is the obverse side of what they are obligated to do – work, clean, educate, obey human laws and regulations; a font of amusement for others is the mockery of people and things that do not please them; and for a few of us, fun is achieving our creative potential, competing with no one but future versions of ourselves, and hoping that life will permit a single, brazen mind to reconcile its duties with its ambitions. Some people, of course, think that life is most entertaining when neither duty nor ambition binds them to their days. Which brings us to this famous film.
We begin with a knight and his squire, the former just returned from ten years in the Holy Land on the errands of God. That decade away from his native shores has done much to embitter and crush the soul of our knight, the noble but hesitant Antonius Block (Max von Sydow). His doubts are not stifled by the petulant skepticism of his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), who claims to love life and all its hedonistic opportunities and has neither patience for nor interest in the spiritual side of existence. But Block's homecoming is marred by the appearance of Death (Bengt Ekerot, in an iconic role) on the otherwise clement beaches that he has not seen in so long. Is it unfair for Death, whom he eluded time and again in battle against the Muslim faithful, to come for him so near to his family and childhood memories? It is, but Block has witnessed so much injustice that it matters little. He challenges Death to a game of chess with the usual Satanic provisions: as long as they play, Death will demit his office as annihilator of worlds; and should Block win, he will be allowed to live longer. And Death, Block, and we all know that Death has never lost.
We then drift away from the quixotic knight and his sidekick to an almost normal family composed of the actor and juggler Jof, his wife Mia, and their toddler son. Jof is prone to visions, the beautiful and irrational visions that accost an artist his whole life; early on he sees a queen and her child, an allegorical representation of his own lovely spouse. What is remarkable is how individual the film begins and how ensemble it becomes. Such a wide variety of characters intrudes that Block, an obvious hero and a man who oozes gentility and honor, slips into the background as simply one of the cast. We meet Plog, an alcoholic blacksmith, his harlot of a wife, Lisa, the lecherous actor and fraud Skat, a young deaf-mute country lass, the seminarist Ravel accused of persuading Block to join the Crusades, and another young woman about to be burned at the stake for witchcraft. All of them are duly aware that the Black Death will be upon them soon, and their reactions convey the range of human emotion when confronted with adversity. Plog doubles his liquid rations; Lisa and Skat find each other's embrace; Ravel decides that a deaf-mute lass cannot scream, especially in an isolated farmhouse; and the witch, in appearance an odd parody of Joan of Arc, claims to reflect the Devil in her eyes. As the epicenter of the film, Block wanders through the countryside and finds both despair and joy, lethargy and militant resistance, ridicule and pious disgust; but more than anything else, he wants to believe. When he talks to the witch, he asks her whether she knows Satan. Why? "So I can ask him about God," says Block, "he must know." The same thirst for truth is inflicted upon Death, from whom he attempts to extract a promise when his time comes. "And you will reveal your secrets?" he asks Death, who responds: "I have no secrets." "So you know nothing, nothing?" he cries in despair, to which Death almost pauses before answering that he is "unknowing." Corporal extinction may indeed yield some insight into a more elevated experience, yet even Death himself is but a ferryman to that distant shore.
The film was apparently inspired in part by a painting from this church, and despite its numerous historical inaccuracies and general unevenness (Bergman's own assessment) it is enthralling as a medieval tale of sin with at least a dozen brilliant vignettes. Perhaps the most magnificent scene of all is Block's confession to a priest whose face is shrouded by his cowl as he turns to hide his profile from Block but not from us. Notably, we are not given any background to the petty conflicts that arise between the villagers because if Death were to come to any village and choose his prey, he would not be able to discern why people have disliked one another for years; in fact those involved probably could not say, either. The small pleasures of life – love, family, friendship, fresh air, and food – these are what sustains us before Death arrives, be it in a tidal wave that swallows up all but a few survivors or at the end of our natural lives when we are wizened and weary. Block probably had these pleasures in his daily routine when he departed to war ten years ago, and it is no exaggeration to state that he can barely enjoy any of them now. After all, there's no risk in gaming Death if you are already dead.