Aditya Gokhale’s review published on Letterboxd:
Ever heard one of those ‘X walks into a bar’ jokes? Hungarian filmmaker Zoltán Fábri’s “The Fifth Seal” (1976) certainly reminded of one, for it begins with such a premise. However, the film and the subject it tackles are hardly a laughing matter, despite an occasional garnishing of some wry humour, sometimes extending to full blown hilarity. Fábri’s film exposes an inherently disturbing truth about all of us by throwing a variant of a “What would you do?” type of question, one that will have you struggling for an answer, much like the baffled characters in this powerful film.
In a war-torn environment in 1940s Hungary, an unnamed fascist regime is gradually taking control of the country. Five men of different occupations sit across a table in a local bar, drinking and conversing about several things. Despite the violent atmosphere outside, the men try to make merry and have a good time but a lot of their conversation, not surprisingly, revolves around the tense state of affairs and the shape of things to come. Interesting discussions follow, focusing on the very foundations of war and dictatorship, stemming from differing ideologies and from an individual point of view.
In such a scenario, one of the men, Gyuricza Miklós (Lajos Öze), asks a hypothetical question, strictly from an individual perspective, that shatters everyone’s composure, rattles their ethical beliefs, and puts them in a tough spot. The answer is seemingly simple, but they slowly realize, that like life itself, there are no easy answers to everything.
“The Fifth Seal” plays out like a claustrophobic chamber piece, with the action mostly confined to the dimly lit bar, barring a couple of very important sequences during which it shifts elsewhere. The exchange between the characters is extremely thought-provoking, compelling the viewer to look at life from diverse lenses. Pertinent questions regarding morality and conscience are raised and weighed against pragmatism and the need to survive, maybe not for the self, but for some others who they may be responsible for.
With unanticipated twists and turns in the narrative, viewer expectation and the ability to judge is constantly toyed with, and the distinction between right and wrong is further blurred, almost obliterating the absolute nature of it, and providing a very convincing angle of subjective morality.
“The Fifth Seal” is a well-acted, expertly directed masterpiece of Hungarian cinema, a fascinating film that hits hard and leaves us with plenty to think about.
My detailed review/analysis at: