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Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”: A Great Film for Our Time

April 3, 2020


“We must make an idol of our fear, and call it god.” So says the recently departed Max von Sydow in his most famous role as Antonius Block, the returning crusader who plays chess with Death, in Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 masterpiece, The Seventh Seal. Block comes home from many battles to find a plague-infested homeland. He is not afraid to die, but he is curious about why he has been chosen, and what the ultimate meaning of life and death may be. “I want God to stretch out his hand, uncover his face, and speak to me,” the knight tells Death in the confessional. For a while, he puts off the inevitable while getting to know a rag-tag group of his fellow countrymen trying to avoid the black death during the brief, beautiful Swedish summer heat. Block imagines he is capable of “one meaningful act” before it is finally check-mate.

The Seventh Seal is, in every way, one of the greatest movies of all time, and it is among the forty-five selections on the Vatican Best Film List of 1995. It is also particularly encouraging for our own circumstances: hunkering down at home to avoid spreading the coronavirus. We are not endangered by a plague as the medieval people that Bergman depicts would have known; but we are facing a serious public health situation, and every case of illness and recovery (or death) is an occasion for contemplating the meaning of existence. More importantly, however, it is a reminder not to wallow in morbid speculation, but rather to enjoy the Lord and serve him despite our worries. In the context of a pandemic keeping us confined to our homes, Christians should ask ourselves: Are we cooped up with an idol god of fear, or are we finding ways to spread the love of God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?

The Seventh Seal’s most interesting characters for our present circumstances are a young couple, Jof and Mia, and their baby son, Mikael. Jof is an entertainer, but also a spiritual visionary known for his fantastic tales. He is genuinely devoted to God, and he has the childlike fascination that Jesus describes in Matthew 18:2-4. Jof talks about angels, and early in the film he has a powerful vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mia finds Jof’s mysticism sweet, and she relishes all the little pleasures of life. The family is the backbone of a traveling minstrel troupe that entertains ordinary townsfolk with acrobatic acts, skits, and songs. They are largely carefree and deeply in love—a state that, as St. John reminds us, never leaves any room for fear, for “fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love” (1 John 4:8).

Mia and Jof share a simple, wholesome supper of fresh milk and wild strawberries with Block, who is wrought with difficult thoughts. He suddenly comes out of himself, and his piety is renewed by admiring the couple’s unrelenting joy. “Every day is the same,” Mia says. Bowled over by the family’s effortless demonstration of the highest theological virtue, Block replies,

I shall remember this moment: the silence, the twilight, the bowl of strawberries, the bowl of milk. Your faces in the evening light. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lyre. I shall try to remember our talk. I shall carry this memory carefully in my hands as if it were a brimful of fresh milk. It will be a sign to me, and a great sufficiency.

As the plague ravages the coast, there is no social distancing and no quarantine. The god of fear is nowhere to be found. There is only wholesome fellowship—a communion of daily sustenance in the absence of the bread of life.

The most memorable scene in the film makes the point more clearly. Jof and Mia arrive in a new town and begin their show with a loud, silly crowd-favorite about farm life. Jof is completely in the moment, grinning from ear to ear, and bellowing animal noises between verses. All of a sudden, an enormous procession of ascetics, flagellants, and fanatics led by an apocalyptic preacher comes through the town gates chanting Dies irae, interrupting the show. It’s one of the wildest things you will ever see on film, culminating in a hellfire and brimstone sermon that contrasts sharply with Mia’s tender reflection on enjoying quotidian pleasures. There is a lot of fear in the sermon, and in the procession as a whole, but no discernible love. While their countrymen weep and rend their garments, Jof and Mia quietly carry on each day as if the bridegroom is in their midst.

In the film’s final scene, Jof displays a real spiritual connection to the recently departed, and he demonstrates spiritual gifts like those of the author of Revelation:

See them, Mia! I see them! Over there against the dark, stormy sky. They are all there. The smith and Lisa and the knight and Raval and Jöns and Skat. And Death, the severe master, invites them to dance. He tells them to hold each other’s hands and then they must tread the dance in a long row. And first goes the master with his scythe and hourglass, but Skat dangles at the end with his lyre. They dance away from the dawn and it’s a solemn dance towards the dark lands, while the rain washes their faces and cleans the salt of the tears from their cheeks.

Jof sees the end clearly, and it does not distress him, just as the close of the New Testament—weird as it is—inspires hope, not despair.

For Jof, like St. John, the central focus is neither a god of punishment nor his own intellectual self-absorption, but the indomitable love of a God who is love itself. Jof simply enjoys the Lord by enjoying life. Mia gets the last word about his vision, as the bright sun shines down on the land of the living, and a soft breeze pushes this holy family to its next destination: “You with your visions and dreams.”

Death may be waiting for Jof and Mia around the corner. Perhaps they have unwittingly contracted the plague from Antonius Block. We don’t know, and neither do they; but they are spiritually prepared for whatever may come. God willing, they will avoid the plague, grow old, and teach Mikael and their other offspring to juggle, act, and sing—all in the knowledge and love of Jesus.

As you look for something to do at home, why not watch The Seventh Seal? Banish the idol of fear, and enjoy the Lord and all his good gifts in the present moment. Ask yourself the big questions of life and death, but ultimately put them on the shelf in favor of the simple faith, hope, and love that sustain Jof and Mia in the film, and which have sustained countless generations of our spiritual ancestors in times much worse than ours.

As St. John Paul II said, “Be not afraid.” Really.