In times of great social turmoil or natural catastrophe, some people begin to believe they are living in the end times. Orthodox beliefs are set aside, and superstitions and the exploitation of religious fears blossom.

At different periods throughout the Middle Ages, the plague or “black death” wiped out entire communities, giving rise to widespread irrational apocalyptic sentiments. The Seventh Seal, a prize-winner at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival, dramatizes the power of these ideas during that era with vivid, symbolic imagery and a series of theological speculations rarely found in the commercial cinema.

Swedish writer-director, Ingmar Bergman (Wild Strawberries and Smiles of a Summer's Night), sets the apocalyptic tone from the very first frame as the narrator recites a biblical quotation that describes the opening of the scroll containing the will of God for history: “The Lamb then broke the seventh seal, and there was silence for about half an hour” (Rv 8:1).

A knight named Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire, Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), are crusaders returning home after 10 years in the Holy Land. They are exhausted physically and spiritually. While resting on a rocky, desolate beach, Block believes he has encountered death in the person of a figure dressed in black (Bengt Ekerot) and challenges him to a game of chess.

“If I win, you release me,” he says to the stranger.

Bergman cuts back to the chess game at crucial points during the story. Because of the plague, death is on everyone's mind. The illiterate populace sees strange, mystical omens everywhere suggesting the end times.

Block's crusade experiences have made him lose his faith. “My heart is empty,” he complains. “I am filled with fear and disgust.”

Tortured by despair, he still prays to God for relief. “Why can't I kill God within me,” he wails. “Why does he live on in this painful and humiliating way even though I curse him and want to tear him out of my heart?”

Block is a cerebral personality. “I want knowledge, not faith,” he proclaims.

Typically, he thinks he can save his life through the exercise of his mental skills while playing chess. His squire is more cynical. Issues of faith don't bother him.

“Up above is God Almighty, so very far away,” he sings, “but your brother, the devil, you will meet on every level.”

Both Jons and his master have a well-developed sense of right and wrong and act on it.

Bergman, the son of a Protestant pastor, contrasts their lack of hope with the attitudes of a juggler, Jof (Nils Poppe), and his wife, Mia (Bibi Andersson). They have a simpler, more natural spirituality. Jof has visions of the Virgin Mary, which everyone else ridicules. Mia, the devoted mother of a newborn son, tries to root her small family in the everyday joys of living, like eating a bowl of fresh strawberries in the noon-day sun.

Jof and his family have hooked up with a small band of traveling players. One of their impromptu performances is interrupted by a group of flagellants called the Slaves of Sin, who chant in procession about the plague being the wrath of God.

Their leader, Raval (Bertil Abderberg), is a former theology teacher who had persuaded Block to join the crusades. Jons exposes him as a thief and a rapist who manipulates people's fears of death and the end times for his own gain. Block invites Jof and his family to join him on a trek through the forest to his castle to avoid the plague, but the mysterious figure in black follows close behind.

Bergman has gone through times of both faith and doubt himself, and it's hard to know what he believes at any one particular time. However, in a 1960 introduction to a book of four of his screenplays, he states his views on the relationship between art and religion with passion.

“Art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship,” he writes. “It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life. The smallest wound or pain is examined under a microscope as if it were of eternal importance. The artist considers his isolation, his subjectivity, his individualism almost holy. We walk in circles so limited by our anguish we can no longer distinguish true from false.”

Bergman is one of the few major creative figures of our era to wrestle with these issues. The Seventh Seal is a carefully thought out testament to the importance of God in our lives and an incisive analysis of the dangers of fixating on the apocalypse.

Next week: Richard Attenborough's Gandhi

Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.