To be clear about our argument we must look at what actually happens to Jof and Mia (and their baby)…
Antonius Black is playing chess with Death when he notices the couple riding away from the camp; and as he watches them go he loses himself in reverie. On recovering his wits he plays but aimlessly, inadvertently allowing his opponent to establish a winning position. Death noticing this absent-mindedness tells Antonius that he is no longer interested in the game; it is a sign that he has accepted his demise. The knight now looks down at the board, sees that he is losing, and knocks the pieces over with his cape; thus distracting his adversary’s attention from the retreating cart. Death, who believes Antonius is trying to cheat, puts all his concentration into returning the pieces to their last positions, and so misses the family’s escape (although he congratulates himself on his omniscience). The knight has saved three human lives; an act that gives his whole life meaning; the reason he wanted more time on earth.
Let us look at this scene more closely. When Antonius first sees the fleeing couple he falls into contemplation, which causes him to lose concentration, the reason for his death – the game is lost. And it is exactly at this moment, when he knows his end is imminent, that Antonius distracts his opponent’s attention from Jof and Mia. It is a revealing causal sequence. Antonius Black is not sacrificing himself for another person; he is not giving his life up to some idea; he is simply taking advantage of an accident to help some people who need (a modicum of) assistance. That is: he is making the best of a chance opportunity. To be perfectly clear, and not a little blunt, Antonius’ “meaning” is contingent upon the situation, and involves no cost to himself. This is not all. The couple are escaping because Jof has seen Death playing with the knight, and he has interpreted this vision correctly – as a warning that his family must leave the camp. You see? Antonius’ “meaning” is dependent on the extra-sensory perception of the actor, whose escape may be responsible for his own death – if Antonius hadn’t been distracted he might have won the game, and so survived.i
It is these details we need to keep in our minds when we think about this film.
Antonius and Jons have returned from the Crusade. It has not been the spiritual quest they had originally envisaged. Quite the opposite! It was, albeit via the admittedly cynical accounts of Jons, a fine time for killing and fucking. Christian feeling is in decline… Antonius still believes, but his belief is ridden with doubt; his faith like an old woman who is asked to prove her once youthful virginity. The freshness of his faith has gone. His experiences have wrecked his belief and he can no longer understand those whose religion requires no proofs at all; he is someone who needs corporeal evidence of God’s existence. Antonius, although still a Christian, is the rational man who can longer accept a religion based only on feeling and belief; he have must have facts that he can see and touch (and hear). God must live in this world, if he is to believe in him. But Antonius is not a sceptic; he wants the deity to exist, thus his search for some act that will give his life meaning, a sign of its presence. Now he has found it, saving a family of folk entertainers from the plague; albeit this act locates the meaning of life squarely within the precincts of the physical world; for it is he, Antonius, who has saved these people, and it is he who gives this action its metaphysical value.
God, who once ruled over all Europe, is being pushed to its far fringes - to the priests and to the religious fanatics -, while the people revert back to the old pagan ways; although the plague brings in its wake the glimmerings of Christianity’s resurrection. Thus Antonius still prays to God to save him when Death at last comes to collect his outstanding debts, even though it is only by saving Jof and Maria from its grasp that he can give meaning to his life and so believe in Christ.
But what actually is this physical world? What is this place where a clown can see visions, and a knight can create meanings that exist above and beyond its quotidian actuality? Antonius, by saving this family, has created a value that cannot be extinguished - he has found a chink in Death’s omniscience, and has produced something of permanent worth. Jof and Mia saved by an entity that they cannot see, hear, touch, taste or smell.ii A ghost? No! Their saviour is an idea, which is imperishable; for even if the couple where to be killed within the hour the meaning the Antonius has created will outlive them – because concepts, because metaphysical, are immortal; only their fame is transient. So what is this idea? It is that an individual’s life should be justified by an idea. This is what Antonius means by “meaning”, and is wider than faith in a Christian God, who in losing his influence is losing his monopoly in the manufacture of metaphysical value. A more expansive, more doubt-ridden, intellectual world is opening out, and God is in terminal decline. (One day, perhaps the day this film was made, it will be understood that man creates his own divinity, and it is the idea itself that is a God.)
There are three classic myths in this film. The Odyssey. Don Quixote. Candide. Itself a work of art The Seventh Seal reworks all three to create a new myth of its own.
Antonius is Odysseus, who eventually returns to his wife after a long war and a few picaresque adventures. But today there are no suitors to kill, because there is no great prize to fight for; his wife grown old during the time her husband has been away. The Crusade has diminished them both. No longer full of youthful exuberance, they have neither the charms nor the strength to attract the admiration and envy of others; Antonius has returned to an empty estate. The juice of life (and the juice of faith) has been squeezed out of it. This is not all: one of his motley band has been infected with the plague; the knight, unbeknownst to himself, has brought death home with him. Doubt is a sword that pierces the heart of Christian belief…
One character is called Cunégonde, which reminds us of Voltaire’s anti-Catholic classic. In this film organised religion is not given an easy time: the priest who persuaded Antonius to go on the Crusade has since become a thief and sadistic hooligan, while the local church condones the burning of a young woman whom the (ignorant) locals say has slept with the devil. When faith decays the institutions fall into ruin…
Jons (the squire) is Sancho Panza. Here he is the clever scholar who deflates the idealism of everyone around him; thus in a wonderful scene he predicts the words of an adulterous wife just before she utters them to her foolish husband. There are no hidden mysteries to his mind; Jons knows everything because experience has taught him everything; happiness, he says, is nothing more than “lying between the shanks of a scarlet woman.” Women are not angels, and God does not exist. All that is left is life itself. Jons is a killer, womanizer, drunkard and rapist. He is also the most moral and rational character in the film; a man prepared to look death in the face and deny the existence of both heaven and hell; although for the sake of others’ piety he will not insist on his right to speak – here is a man who recognises a human moral code but not a divine one. When faith dies only the (often ugly) truth remains…
Christianity has failed the best men in this land. It cannot give meaning to these characters' lives, which have become too terrible to be explained by simple homilies. Jons stops at a church. He enters it. An artist with talent and insight is painting its walls, and Jons, like ourselves – the church looks like an illuminated manuscript -, is impressed by the work, although he is puzzled by one of its sequences; it is of the flagellants who travel the country beating themselves in Christ’s name. As he looks at these figures he goes suddenly quiet, and seems to be a little scared; the only time in the film he loses his composure. This is the artist’s power. In such faithless times only art has the ability to convey the mysterious forces inherent in the universe; forces that include the puzzle of fanatic faith; that capacity to believe absolutely in something that does not exist (at least in any material way – God is invisible to all the five senses; the mind first having to create him so as to believe in him). The world is an odd place. And Christianity no longer has the power to capture its strangeness; its talent to enlighten dimmed if not dead. Now it is only the artists who can see what is not there.
Jof has visions. They save him. One night he sees Death playing with Antonius; it is a sign that his family must leave the camp. After riding quietly away they park up for the night, where they sleep soundly as a storm thunders all around them. Waking up they find it is a sunny day. They have survived! Then, just before they set off for their travels, Jof has another vision; looking up the hill he sees Antonius and the others linked in a dance with Death – the plague is leaving this land. Life has been resurrected, and it now trundles off in a covered cart. A strange kind of life to be sure... A jester, his wife/assistant, and their baby, who may grow up to be a greatest juggler the world has ever known (it is Jof’s dream).
Art has survived, although it has been touch and go. The flagellants interrupted one of the performances – these terrible beatings and the intense rituals of prayer are far more compelling than old folk plays -; while the ex-priest nearly killed Jof in a moment of sadistic pleasure, when he used the jealousy of a cuckolded husband and the inebriated excitement of the locals to torment and torture this helpless actor. Art is fragile. To get out of the inn Jof needed the help of Jons, while only by riding with Antonius could his family cross safely through the (dark) wood. To survive art needs a protector stronger and more moral than itself. More moral? Yes! Because the guardian must have both a sense of justice and the power to enforce it; Jons has his own code of honour and the strength to protect it from the decadence of a world that prefers survival and pleasure to honour and integrity. Cruelty and spite offend his moral sensibilities, and he will act to stop them; he even considers freeing a young woman who is to be burnt at the stake, but Antonius dissuades him, as no good can come of such a rescue.
As the flames flap around her body the knight and the scholar look into the eyes of this woman. These eyes are full of terror. But there is no devil in them. It is the moment of their greatest clarity. Humans, they now recognise, are alone on this earth. Jons can accept such a truth easily. Antonius cannot; praying to God to save them even when Death stands over him preparing to take his family away. In this society God is like a man who has fallen over the edge of a cliff, and is desperately trying to claw his way back up. Will he fall or will he scramble back to solid ground; there to bury his heavy breathing amongst the tall grasses and the muddy earth; the wild flowers a crowd of curious onlookers, gossiping on the wind…? It doesn’t matter, for the best men in the land will never quite believe in him again, having seen him lose his omnipotence. They must look to other people to illuminate life’s mysteries. They must travel with Jof and Mia, and their baby. Artists are the seers now.
(Review: The Seventh Seal)