A knight and his squire return from the crusades to find the Black Plague decimating the population. The knight, Antonious Block (Max von Sydow) struggles with questions about death, suffering, and the nature of God as he challenges Death to a game of chess.
Just to be clear, this is not a period piece. It blends facets of medieval Europe with characters who speak in the style of the time in which the movie was made and in a way that somehow seems distinctive to a Bergman film.
Antonious agonizes over the questions with which believers have struggled since the beginning of time. How do we determine how to live -- and how to die -- when kneeling before a silent, unknowable God? Why won't God reveal himself in some way? And if he does not exist, does that leave us alone in a meaningless universe?
Meanwhile, all around him, medieval villagers -- along with the squire and several itinerant performers -- swap bleak, terrifying rumors and face the possibility of imminent apocalypse due to the bubonic plague. Each copes with it in his own way.
One of the things I appreciated about this film was its exploration of the broad spectrum of religion, ranging from a thoughtful search for meaning and truth to mindless, destructive superstitions that often grow in response to fear. At the same time, we see people living, working, laughing, creating families, and going about the minutiae of everyday life. Amid the knight's pondering of life, death, and faith, people are doing those ordinary things that ultimately give our lives meaning.
This rather dark, philosophical film is surprisingly funny and enjoyable as well as clever, eloquent, and rich. These elements, along with the gorgeous cinematography and expert use of light and shadow, make it easy to see why this is one of Bergman's best-loved masterpieces.