John S.’s review published on Letterboxd:
The Virus movie. This is gonna be a bit black, for it’s been a week. I received some bad news and got that feeling that I was alone in it. But my writing pard called as planned, and I had just finished explaining to him why I wasn’t gonna be in the mood to hit the keys when he told me that he had the exact same bad news. Cancer in the fam. Kinda silly to think I was alone. I then recalled that I have two other relatives saddled with serious illnesses. A lot of caring to do. And one day later, tonight, bam there was this movie starting on TCM, right on time.
First time I saw this marvel was in an Intro to Film class. I gave a negative review to Citizen Kane, got a C+. But I thought The Seventh Seal was metal and got an A-. I learned to stay positive in this realm.
There are lessons from the mid-14th century. Death in this film is mostly the Black Death. Where there used to be a priest in the confessional, now there is death. Churches were great conveyors of the plague. In Elsinore for the Saints’ Feast are townies, soldiers, and those fleeing the plague, and now here come the flagellants and procession beating the drum for Christ, berating the drinkers, the horny, and anyone seeking entertainment and joy. They come shambling in to the tune of Dies Irae—it’s not a plot point but it could very well be that they carried the plague around with them. They take the sign of death and become its form. From this point our friend death finds itself a growing party to follow thru the forest.
Jof the performer, a clown, has visions. Can even see death coming, which is an advantage here. Imagination saves. “Folks in these parts aren’t much for juggling.” He sees a future in which his son can levitate a sphere using knowledge and skills beyond his own. Here with his wife and son there is hope. Elsewhere in the party there lies only fear and the void.
Whatever you do, don’t call death a “scurvy knave.” Why give death any joy?
When a tree falls, life pops up in its place.
You won’t find a cuter nor better lit squirrel than in this forest.
Death might just be a fact of nature but the knight is bothered by every question surrounding it. Hard to take your eyes off the knight. Just check him out late in the game, hooded up, so cool looking like a saint, mirroring our antagonist while trying one last hail mary (which works to a degree).
While the knight acts like a holy man, his squire remains in action mode although he claims to the silent girl that rape isn’t really doing it for him anymore. And “with any luck my wife is already dead.” He’s the non-believer of the duo, with virtually no questions; perhaps it wasn’t always this way, but the worthless crusades have turned him nihilistic, at least in words. He needs a drink, quickly haunted by stories of the plague by the church wall muralist. Knight and squire battle it out over a witch burning, in a terrestrial Inferno, a divine tragedy.
There is light. Von Sydow’s weary knight relaxing in the hills with fellow travelers, strangers only moments ago. The knight vows to remember the peace of the preceding last half hour forever, the strawberries (wild ones) and the milk and the couple and their child. I’ve always loved that little speech. A totally disarming killer.
Unceremoniously they arrive at the home of Antonius Block, who has offered shelter to all in his party. His wife lives, so he is still married. (He could not answer this question with any certainty, which comes off as rather startling and direct). On his face throughout the film is written a toll unexplainable, strange, and secret. It remains in this homecoming scene but is magnified by his woman’s presence. In this case, the child is not the father of the man. He is gone, and so is the young man who came after. What a heartbreaker. Unbelievable.
The space is more like an airless chamber of judgment. Nearly all of the characters treat death/the plague as if it were some mad god aiming to punish. Or to nullify all. “I will remain silent but I do it under protest.” But the knight gets it, the girl, silent up to this moment, gets it. It is finished.
Between this and the “confessional” scene Bergman shows a great affinity for all struggling with faith, belief, and existence. Believers, too.
My neighbor told me on the same day I got my bad news that his brother along with his wife and child all died within the last 9 days. This movie is a gift to the world, amigos. We are lucky to have it. Nothing like it in the mid-1300s nor in 1918. I hope that you find it whenever you need it.