Thursday, August 26, 2010

Day Fifty-Four: The Seventh Seal

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #117
Year: 1957
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Max Von Sydow and Bengt Ekerot

Some movies are so inseparably associated with one particular line or scene that even people who have never seen the movie – or even seen the famous scene or heard the famous line in its original context – will recognize the bit in question if they were to walk by a television that was showing it. The Seventh Seal is one such movie. No one with an even passing interest in film is unfamiliar with the scene where a world-weary knight played by Max Von Sydow plays chess with Death, played coldly by a black-cloaked Bengt Ekerot. The scene has transcended the movie. Most people probably don't even know that the movie is Swedish; they just know that a dude plays chess with Death, and they know that they're supposed to know that. They often don't know that what lies behind that iconic scene is ninety minutes of beautiful allegory directed by one of international cinema's all-time heavyweights.

I saw The Seventh Seal shortly before I started this blog and haven't had a chance to rewatch it yet, but I vividly remember being struck by how powerful it was. Von Sydow's knight, Antonius Block, returning with his squires from a Crusade, disillusioned by the fighting, to find that his homeland has become overrun by the Black Death creates a stark backdrop for what unfolds over the course of the film, but it isn't so much about the Black Death, or even really about the knight himself, as it is about the concept of faith and how it is interpreted by disparate people, and how it affects them. A single line – translated here, I don't know enough Swedish to offer any kind of interpretation on the original line – from Antonius Block best defines the movie: "Faith is a torment. Did you know that? It is like loving someone out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call." This sums up the take-home message of the film, and perhaps even director Ingmar Bergman's own beliefs.

Despite the tone of the sentiment offered by our protagonist, The Seventh Seal is not a bleak movie. It oozes with the joy of life. The plague is ravaging Sweden, our hero is back from a mindless, bloody Crusade and finds himself questioning God, he's playing a game of chess with Death himself, and yet, a certain exuberance shines through the whole picture. The supporting cast, a family of entertainers, manages to be gleeful no matter what awfulness life throws at them, and their high spirits rub off on Antonius. The movie keeps its very serious tone, but its message isn't that a godless, cruel world is a bummer; it's that come whatever may, life is worth living, and optimism is the only truth. There's plenty of shadowy cinematography and some dark scenes, but The Seventh Seal is full of light, and it remains perhaps Bergman's greatest triumph.

The Good: Perhaps the timelessness of the chess scene(s) makes it the only right choice.

The Bad: There's some pacing issues that make it feel like either the scenes should be shorter or the film should be longer. Forgivable, though.

The Skinny: Deserves its place.


  1. After this is over you need to have an Ingmar Berdman phase and realize that his best film is Through a Glass Darkly... chills my friend... chills...

  2. I've only seen The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries so far...actually, I'm not sure if he has anything else on the list, but I plan on watching The Magic Flute soon because I'm on an opera trip right now. I'll note that Through a Glass Darkly is one to see though, thank you sir.