Monday, March 12, 2012

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Max von Sydow, Bengt Ekerot, Gunnar Björnstrand

Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal has long been on my list of films I need to see but something about it seemed a bit intimidating.  Bergman has a reputation of producing thought-provoking but slow films; though his one film I have seen, Fanny and Alexander, is amazing (and not slow despite its epic length).  Taking on a Bergman film that poses deep questions about issues of life, death, and the existence of God during the Middle Ages in Plague-ridden Sweden was something I needed to build myself up for.   When The Seventh Seal came up twice in episodes of the Filmspotting podcast I recently listened to (Top 5 Movies about Mortality and Top 5 Existential Films), I decided it was time to see why The Seventh Seal is so highly regarded.

Max von Sydow (55 years younger than he was at last month's Academy Awards, where he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor) plays Antonius Block, a knight returning to his home Sweden with his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), after fighting in the Crusades for ten years.  His views on life and God have been disillusioned by the horrors he witnessed fighting a useless war and by the devastation the Plague has unleashed across Europe.  Death literally approaches Antonius as he nears his home, in the form of Bengt Ekerot’s creepy, but darkly humorous, version of the Grim Reaper.  Antonius is not afraid of Death but not ready to greet his end while lacking greater knowledge about God and meaning of life.  Antonius and Death begin a game of chess to give him a chance gain some further insight before it is too late.

As the returning Crusaders travel through Sweden, it becomes clear that death (the thing, not the person) and God weighs heavily on the people in The Seventh Seal.  People have become accustomed to the sight of Plague-inflicted corpses, but question why God has decided to punish them so terribly (questions that remain unanswered).  Some of The Seventh Seal’s most powerful scenes involve people attempting to appease the apparently vengeful God, such as a terrifying procession of people whipping themselves in penance for their sins and the burning of a young girl at the stake over the belief that she has been in contact with the Devil.   Yet God continues to remain silent while the Plague’s devastation rages and Death continues to show himself to Antonius (and others) and do his duty.

However, The Seventh Seal is not an overly dour, slow or depressing film despite its heavy themes.  I'd even go as far to say that I had a good deal of fun while watching it.  There were many instances of dark humor and others of great beauty that were quite unexpected and very refreshing.  Ekerot’s Death is filled with small but funny lines that he coldly dispatches while making his numerous appearances either to play chess or to discuss Antonius’ reasoning for prolonging his fate.  The most consistently humorous character is definitely the squire, Jöns.  He acts as the film’s voice of reason, partially because he is one the only characters not struggling with answers from a higher authority when facing such a devastating age.  Jöns has realized that there is not a lot of meaning behind all the death left in the wake of the Crusades and the Plague, and that the best way to survive is to just look out for oneself and those closest to you.  In the tensest situations when people are struggling with matters of life and death, Jöns provides great comedic reactions to help lighten the mood during these dark times.  But he has a heart behind his cynicism.  A traveling troupe of actors that join Antonius and Jöns also help lighten the mood.

Death remains the only constant in this world, which is a huge contrast to God’s invisibility.  While Antonius’ quest for some insight to tell him something different lacks definitive answers, he does find some beauty in this dark and destructive world that tells him that life is, in fact, worth living.  There are so many beautiful moments involving a family of actors who befriend Antonius on his travels.  Jof, Mia, and their baby are the definition of a happy family whose love remains untarnished by all the death they live amongst.  One of my favorite moments occurs when Jof and Mia share some strawberries and milk with Antonius.  At this moment, Antonius realizes that despair has not completely infected the world and being able to enjoy moments of peace with friends makes life worth living.  Death may be inevitable and he has prepared himself to face it, but he will make it a mission to prevent Death (the figure) from showing up to dispense his punishment on Jof, Mia and the baby.  The moments of beauty are especially inspiring in the context of such a dark and disturbing environment that the Plague has created.

The Seventh Seal forces one to examine those deep questions about life, death, and whatever occurs after, but does not ever feel heavy-handed in doing so.  It is great work of cinema that is filled with iconic images, amazing scenes, and fascinating characters.  Even when some things seem out of place, Bergman masterfully weaves them together in the end so it becomes clear that every moment had a purpose.  Upon my second viewing of The Seventh Seal, all the pieces fit together much more clearly and there are great little touches that become more noticeable.  I look forward to comprehending my newest reactions whenever I decide to experience this film a third time.  I may have hesitated to give this existential movie about mortality a proper chance, but it was worth the wait.  All the hype I heard about The Seventh Seal being one those “Great Movies” was well warranted; it is a classic.

Mark it 9.

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