The Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal ★★★★½

Much like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, The Seventh Seal offers a cross section of Mediaeval life and while doing so it comments on our race, faith and life.

I don't know much about Bergman, but this feels like a personal exploration of an artist trying to figure out how he relates to God, the afterlife and his own mortality. Bergman does this by constructing a deeply philosophical allegory composed of classic iconic imagery and intelligent, contemplative dialogue.

In the Knight we find a man desperately clinging to life. Not because he is afraid to die, but because he needs answers. In a plague infested world he needs to understand why his God is silent. To buy time he challenges Death to a game of chess. Death agrees to play with him periodically, accompanying him on his journey (in itself a beautiful image as it is).

On his journey he encounters a host of people, all representing different aspects of society. By interacting with them, we are shown an accurate and interesting depiction of medieval life and customs. It is also within these interactions that Bergman explores his themes.

And that is where reading this film gets tricky as the language is very dense. Bergman creates a veritable forest of symbolism which is very tough to navigate. Then again, that state of confusion perfectly mirrors the state of mind of our protagonist. The way I read it is that Bergman wants to explore the nature of (his own?) faith. We are creatures of basic needs (represented by the actor, the smith and his wife), yet we still have that capacity to believe in an afterlife we should strive for. Based on what? Bergman seems to believe that there are no answers, not even in death, so faith should be enough. But it is a faith based on fear, not beauty. Fear of Death, God and final judgement, but still the prospect of something after life seems better than the vastness of eternal nothingness.

Bergman's is a very bleak perspective and that is what gives this film its unbelievable weight. Yet there is also a hidden longing present. One of the actors the knight meets has a wife and child and like the knight he can see death. He even has visions, but his outlook is positive. When he has a vision he sees the Virgin Mary with a child. He and his family represent the pastoral ideal, a faith connected to life, not death. Bergman seems to long for that as he grants them, through the Knight, the opportunity to escape death.

I am not a religious man, but I loved the allegorical nature of the film. There are so many scenes that are captured in breathtaking beauty, that alone warrants this film's status as a classic. The sometimes haunting atmosphere Bergman manages to create with so little means is very impressive. As intellectually stimulating as this is, I had great trouble connecting it because of the extreme cerebral nature of the narrative. Still, that is a minor and very personal complaint as this clearly is not a film set out to create some sort of emotional connection with its audience. So what is left is a stunning piece of cinema to philosophize over.

And that is more than enough.

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