For my money the best film-depiction of the Middle Ages, Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 The Seventh Seal is both extremely faithful to its particular medieval milieu, while at the same time astonishing applicable to any era or peoples. It follows a knight and his squire as they return to Sweden from the Crusades, and make their way across the countryside to the knight’s longed-for home. The two represent two different view-points towards life: the knight idealistic and spiritually-inclined; the squire more base and earthy. As they travel (bet you didn’t see this coming), they encounter many types of people, and many different examples of ways to spend one’s time on earth.
The film is especially concerned with the harsh nature of medieval Christianity, its terror-inducing aspects and tendencies towards the morbid (a striking sequence is that of the parade of medieval flagellants, attempting to scourge the Sin of God out of them). At the same time- people eat; sleep; make love; spend time in one another’s company, joining together in this Thing of Life. All the while, however, they try to understand this thing of living, and ask themselves what is the purpose of it finally? Has it a purpose? Is there Something Else beyond this frame of mortality? How can you ever know, and how can you live from one day to next not knowing? While the knight asks, Where is God, the one sure presence in the film is Death.
Pagans will find two types of Person reflected in this film interesting. One is the small troupe of Players or actors, who represent the medieval tradition of the Fool- the satirists or comedians of the Middle Ages. Check out the comic displays of sexual virility in the the Fools’ costumes, as well as the comic suggestion of horns in the Fools’ head-dresses. Then too, pay attention to the wretched young woman who has been condemned to die as a Witch (“for having carnal knowledge of the Evil One,” or the Devil). We discover her first in chains and the stocks, guarded by men who banish the Evil One by reading Scripture over her. She is disturbing, for seeming so very removed from her circumstance; she is either so mentally into “her own world” that she can’t connect with her reality- or she has been tortured so badly that she is in too much of a state of shocked trauma to be cognizant. Even during the sequence of her Witch-Burning later, we can’t be sure whether she isn’t some sort of mystic ecstatic, moved finally by visions of another world. Maybe that is why she resembles Joan of Arc in her last shot.
The Seventh Seal is currently available at Hulu.com. I’m not sure how long it might be there, and you do have to sit through commercials, but if you have never seen it before, it is really worthwhile- it’s all about Life, with the sure understanding that the unavoidable conclusion is Death.
“Death, a necessary End, will come when it will come,” says Hamlet. “If it be not to come- it is Now. If it be not Now- yet it will come. The readiness is all.”