Natural disasters have a history of precipitating a resurgence in theological study and reflection. The earthquake and tsunami that decimated Portugal in the 1500s resulted in rejuvenated study of theodicy – the question of divine providence given the existence of evil.
Perhaps the most searching modern examination of this question is The Seventh Seal (1957), the best-known film of Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman. This brooding, Lutheran-inflected drama famously depicts a returning crusader playing chess with the devil while the plague ravages Sweden.
Antonius Block has spent a decade fighting for God, only to return to a homeland decimated by the Black Plague. The theme of the film is Block’s earnest struggle to find some evidence that proves God’s existence in the face of this horror.
In a key scene, Block confesses to what he thinks is a priest. “Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one’s senses,” he asks. “Why can’t I kill God in me?” As he continues his questions without answer, he admits that “life is a preposterous horror” without God.
Block is confronted with a visceral example of life’s “preposterous horror” as the Black Death lays waste to the peasants and the soldiers without regard for rank. Those who do not fall are primarily insensitive or crude, interested only in satisfying their appetites.
It is a grim vision, underlined by in a virtuoso sequence depicting three ‘performances’. The first by a group of travelling players, depicting a man being led along like an ass. The second, a man and woman engage in an unappealing attempted seduction while the players sing a comical folk song. Finally, the local Lutheran community parade through the streets, a parade of flagellants and crucifixes and crowns of thorns.
Is life a preposterous horror, a macabre performance Bergman seems to ask? Or is there meaning in the world?
Block’s game with the devil is initially out of a desire to save his skin – but his goal shifts, and all he asks is the opportunity to conduct one meaningful act. The act he sets upon is saving the lives of a young family, members of a travelling acting troupe.
In the end, this young family are the image of faith and love. The husband, a comic, is also a visionary, and witnesses the Virgin Mary leading the child Jesus through a field at morning. In the end, this is the key image – it ties the family to a vision of fealty, of receptive love and faith in the Lord, which Block never quite achieves.
But he does recognise it in them, and it is for this reason that he seeks to save them. His confrontation with mortality and human frailty leads him, by a roundabout path, to one of the most touching evocations of faith in cinema.