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HAving just arrived back to Sweden from 10 years on the cursades,
knight Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow) is visited by the personified Death
(Bengt Ekerot), wanting to take Block with him. Block however challenges
him to a game of chess for his life, wanting before death find an answer
to his questions ... Death agrees.
Soon, Block & his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) wander the
Swedish countryside, but what they find here is not any better than the
horrors they had found in war: The country is brought down by the plague,
people have taken to witchhunting, killing innocents in the name of the
church, others have taking to thieving & raping, includijng
Raval (Bertil Anderberg), who has persuaded them to go on the crusades 10
years ago, & flagellants, people publicly lashing themselves/each
other to repent for their sins, are touring the countryside, setting a
gruesome example for the already scared populace.
Meanwhile a group of travelling actors: Jof (Nils Poppe) & Mia
(Bibi Andersson) with their sbaby son Michael & their director Skat
(Erikk Strandmark) are travelling the countryside, doing the best they can
to make a living by staging morality plays in front of (& actually
hired by) churches, & only Jof's unshakeable optimism keeps them going
... but even this optimism is put to a test when Skat seduces Lisa (Inga
Gill), the wife of Plog (Ake Fridell) a smith,, & for some reason Jof
gets badly beaten up for it. (Skat by the way soon afterwards, while
running from Plog, has a meeting with Death, who saws down the tree he's
hiding on - with the expected consequences.)
Soon, Block & his squire, plus a girl (Gunnel Lindblom) Jöns has
picked up as his housekeeper, meet up with Jof, Mia & son and Plog
& wife, & they decide to team up & travel to Block's castle,
where they consider themselves relatively safe.
On the journey though, they meet a witch (Maud Hansson) about to be
burned, & Block is shocked how little he can do to save, even help her
That same night, Block is visited by Death again, & they conclude
their game ... which Block drags out just long enough so Jof can see them
& make good an escape with his wife & child. Death wins the game
& promises, when he comes back the next time, to collect Block
& all those who are with him.
The next day, the group arrives at Block's castle, where his wife (Inga
Landgré) has been awaiting him - for ten years. ut that same night, Death
comes by again, & takes them all with him, disappointing Block one
last time as not even he has the answers Block has so unsuccessfully been
Jof, having successfully escaped with his family, & having always
had visions, sees Death & his erstwhile companions going to the
netherworld, while he, with life & child, goes into a (hopefully)
brighter future ...
As one would come to expect from Ingmar Bergman, this film is heavy on
strong, symbolic images & paints a grim, nihilistic picture of the
Dark Ages, deriving them of all their glamour but emphasizing on the
horrors. The outcome is a film strong on atmospherebut also
(intentionally) pretty depressing. Not something you would want to show at
a party but a genuine work of art that bears repeated viewing.