I like The Seventh Seal more every time I see it. This is a movie that had the balls to flip religion the bird in 1957. It's a perfect tale of revelation and redemption, thrusting a mirror in front of the human condition.
A knight has returned from the Crusades, but his faith is shaken and the Bubonic plague spreads across the land. If that weren't crisis enough, death itself stalks him on the shores of his homeland and he finds himself playing chess with the reaper to buy himself a little time. But time for what? Time to do something, ANYTHING, to atone for the chaos and misery he wrought in the middle east; a campaign he now knows to have been arrogant, foolish and utterly without merit.
As the knight, his squire and the rest of our characters tour medieval Sweden, we see them confront every horror that the Dark Ages brought to bear. We see opportunistic theft, attempted rape, mockery and scapegoating out of total ignorance, and a mentally ill woman burned as a witch. Everyone is terrified of the black plague, and their inability to cope with it brings out the worst in humanity. As a troupe of bards attempt to alleviate a small town with songs and dance, a Christian passion play comes crashing through the streets, whipping themselves bloody, wailing and begging the sky for relief and forgiveness that will not come. No doubt they will spread the plague further before they drop their heavy wooden crosses and die in agony. Our main characters look on, wondering where the human race went wrong.
The knight endures all this while delaying his inevitable loss on the chess board and seeking answers to the questions that tear at his faith. In the end, none are satisfactory, and yet he remains stalwart in his quest for redemption. When death comes for him and his companions, the knight's good deeds have been accomplished and the cynical squire stares his mortality down, demonstrating that humanity can still perform at its best in the absolute worst circumstances.
There is virtually no fat in this film. It is clean in its beautiful black and white frames, crisp editing and purposeful dialogue. Although mostly bleak in their humor, there are a few laughs to be had among the 96 minutes of existential dread. We're even given a clarifying moment of hope and joy before the credits appear. This timeless piece is Ingmar Bergman's master work and it's as good as films get.