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The iconic image of a knight playing chess with the personification of death is all I knew about "The Seventh Seal" ("Det sjunde inseglet") before viewing it. The knight, brilliantly portrayed by Max von Sydow, seeks the meaning of life and death, and questions the existence of God, during the Black Plague.

Answers to his questions elude the knight (Antonius Block), and the closest he comes to finding meaning in life is an idyllic afternoon he spends eating strawberries and drinking milk with a married pair of traveling thespians. Watching their toddler son frolic around the campsite, Block remarks, "I shall remember this moment: the silence, the twilight, the bowl of strawberries, the bowl of milk. Your faces in the evening light...I shall carry this memory carefully in my hands as if it were a bowl brimful of fresh milk. It will be a sign for me, and a great sufficiency."

This is my favorite scene, and it stands in sharp contrast to the darkness Block encounters on his journey through Sweden's countryside during the plague. The burning of a young "witch" at the stake and self-flagellation by a group of passing peasants ( in their futile attempt to ward off the Black Death) reinforce Block's doubts about the existence of a higher power.

The chess game with death continues throughout the film, and Block gradually accepts that this is a game no one can win. Other characters are stalked by death in a variety of ways, but always with the same result. While the subject matter is bleak, the film is not. Surprisingly, there is a lot of humor in the film. The antics of the traveling actors, and relationship advice from Block's down-to-earth but woman-weary squire, made me laugh out loud.

"The Seventh Seal" is a classic film, considered a masterpiece by many critics. With its gorgeous cinematography, thought-provoking  themes, witty dialogue and empathetic and engaging characters, I can see why.


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