Some beachgoers play touch football. Some play Frisbee. And some play chess. That’s the unusual pastime, a board-game contest between a medieval knight and Death, that famously occupies much of the running time of Bergman’s classic allegory. After ten years of fighting in a brutal and pointless crusade, Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow) washes up on the shore of a plague-ravaged Sweden. There, Death (Bengt Ekerot) awaits him, but Block buys himself some time with the chess challenge.
Of course, it’s not dying that Block is afraid of, so much as living without proof of the existence of God. After a decade of horrors experienced in God’s service, Block feels he’s owed some answers, but none is forthcoming.
Bergman’s game-board tableau is one of the most famous sequences in cinema (judging by how many times it’s been spoofed – even Bill and Ted got to challenge a Swedish-accented Death to Battleship and Twister), but it’s also just a game. Block would do just as well to look for answers in the simple pleasures of life (like the meal of milk and strawberries that is the film’s centerpiece) or in the rhythms of the sea rolling into the shore.
Next La Dolce Vita