*. The archetypal art house film, though it seems kind of teenagerish to me now. And I don’t think that’s just because it’s been imitated (and, naturally, parodied) so often. I’ve found the same response registered by a number of critics.
*. I don’t want to hate on a classic. It’s a beautiful movie to look at – Bergman has a great sense of composition – and I buy a lot of its seriousness. It’s just that it’s so damn stiff. From Death’s appearance as a black pillar on, the film never relaxes into a naturalistic rhythm or style. Even the seduction scene plays out like a dumb-show ritual. Of course this may have been Bergman’s intention, but it doesn’t make me like the movie any more.
*. The theme is pretty basic. For all the religious trappings on display, I never get the sense that Bergman believes in any of it. Indeed, quite the opposite. The only point to the odyssey is having the burned-out case Sydow find some meaning or purpose in his life. But his religiosity doesn’t stand out as very stalwart when weighed next to the earthiness of his squire, who in the final encounter with Death casts his master into the background and openly mocks Sydow’s feeble expressions of devotion.
*. It’s worth noting that in the play the movie was based on, Jons is in fact the main character and the knight has more of a supporting role.
*. Something medieval in the notion that as the knight goes, so goes everyone around him (family, retainers, hangers on). What if one of them had been a better chess player?
*. What’s with that terrible Hammer Horror music as the wagon flees through the forest in the storm? On the Criterion commentary Cowie calls it “marvelous,” but I thought it sounded canned.
*. Is that Death kneeling in the background as the young woman burns at the stake? Cowie says so, but I can’t tell. I don’t know why he would be kneeling there. And when we see him elsewhere his black robe doesn’t have a rope belt.
*. It all seems portentous, but I just can’t relate to the religious message. If there is one. After all, God is absent while death is real and inevitable. When Raval tells the woman that there is no one to hear her, neither god nor man, he is wrong only because Jons is there listening. Even the monk has nothing to say by way of a sermon but can only rub everyone’s nose in their own mortality. As for Death, he represents a natural process and knows nothing. Since he seems the kind of guy who should know something, we might assume from this that there’s nothing to know.
*. This seems to have been Bergman’s own philosophy. He is said to have felt “enormously secure” in there being “absolute nothingness” after death.