The Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal ★★★★★

***One of the best 150 films I have ever seen.***

Undoubtedly, Ingmar Bergman is one of the most genius, brilliant, allegoric, symbolic, complex and intelligent auteurs in the entire history of cinema. He was the one who helped Swedish cinema to rise out of the blue and acquire a characteristic style of its own, but it was in the year of 1957 when he received complete international attention through two of his first and most financially successful films: Det Sjunde Inseglet and Smultronstället (1957). Det Sjunde Inseglet immediately belongs to the most superior category of cinema. Its extraordinary inventiveness, visual style and apocalyptic perspective has been several times imitated, but never duplicated. Never before had cinema questioned the true essence of life, the existence of God and the negative consequences of religion towards its society when seen as the opium of the masses in such a straightforward manner. With an extraordinary cast that includes the Swedish cinema legends Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Bengt Ekerot and Gunnar Björnstrand, not to mention one of the scariest and most sensational antagonists ever portrayed in celluloid, Det Sjunde Inseglet has the power to shatter the already established code of ethics, to attack and criticize the monstrous consequences of misleading religion and even to modify the perspective towards life itself.

A man named Antonius Block and his squire return to their homeland from the Crusades only to find the country completely devastated by the infamous Black Plague. In case this wasn't enough, Block has an encounter with Death who tells him that his time is already up. With the mere and obvious purpose of buying time, Block challenges Death to a game of chess that will ultimately decide the fate of the knight while he is given the chance to return to his wife after ten years and to question the meaning of life, the senselessness of death and the very existence of God. Director Ingmar Bergman was nominated for a Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival of 1957, which unfairly lost against William Wyler for his film Friendly Persuasion (1956). However, Bergman won the Jury Special Prize, which tied with Andrzej Wajda's Kanal (1957). He also won a Silver Ribbon for Best Director - Foreign Film at the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists in the year of 1961.

The title Det Sjunde Inseglet is a direct reference towards the eighth chapter of the Book of Revelations of The Holy Bible, citing the text during the first minutes and just before the shocking, implicit ending. To cite such literary source may imply a context of apocalyptic perdition and existential confusion. The character of Antonius Block, masterly interpreted by Max von Sydow, would be completely remade in Andrey Tarkovsky's timeless, religious masterpiece Andrey Rublyov (1966). He is a man whose faith in God is suddenly shattered into pieces because of the catastrophic environment that always surrounded him. Nonetheless, it is this same environment the one that starts to build and ultimately experience a highly religious way of life. Chapels are being constructed while people suffer a destructive plague which origins remained unknown by that time. The easiest and most logical explanation such degraded and increasingly violent society found for such tragedy was the very plague being a direct punishment of God for the sins of the human being. And so begins the personal journey of self-discovery of Block exactly at the time when, ironically, death has already assured its victory.

Det Sjunde Inseglet possesses an extraordinary cinematographic work by Gunnar Fischer. The camera catches and consequently attracts all of the symbols and elements that beautifully decorate the mysterious and unpredictable development of the plot. From the vast ocean to the interior of the chapels and the breathtaking landscapes through which a group of unusually funny traveling players go through, Block starts to gather pieces of a possible meaning of life that may acquire a more significant meaning if rather strong emotional connections start to be worked on. It is interesting how, throughout decades of moviemaking, directors have given a somewhat surreal and symbolic connotation when traveling players are used as either main or secondary characters. In this case, they serve the mere function of the protagonists' epiphany. One of them swears to have visions of the Virgin Mary while Block is seeing Death, so they could be interpreted as the counterpart of an imminent and unavoidable fate. Despite its relatively short running time, enough character development is offered, visionary sequences, partial surrealism and religious imagery is offered in order to magically expand it. Bergman's direction is absolutely phenomenal and instead of mistakenly resorting to exaggerated grandiloquence, he decided to treat the story with such delicacy that one may even feel that it must be analyzed like the tenderest physical features of a rose.

Det Sjunde Inseglet may also be subject to an escapist analysis. It is an essay on the easily corrupted soul and the most negative outcomes when external facts utterly deteriorate any possible optimistic perspective. Its existentialist subject matter may ultimately lead to either a depressing reaction from the audience or to a cathartic one. Bergman's ethereal and heavenly screenplay, which was also based on his play, contains outstandingly surprising and hidden layers of wisdom. The most typical and somewhat ridiculous faults of the human being are contrasted with what seems to be the end of mankind... or so they perceive it. It also pays a strong attention to detail, from having conversations of the importance of family relationships to the normally devastating hardships of failed romances. The performances are phenomenal, from a comical theater actor to an idealist, violent, but undeniably charming squire. The film slowly reveals several moments of brilliance, like if the screenplay allowed a gorgeous piece of art to blossom under the influence irradiated by the power of darkness. Such plot is remarkably unpredictable, thus enhancing the power of the final conclusion: eternal wandering and never-ending doom. The philosophical material of the film is overabundant and it has the sheer capacity of strengthening the faith in every single religious man, not to mention a possible questioning of the atheists' point of view and take on life.

Ingmar Bergman has achieved to create one of the best films of all time, but the description doesn't end there. It has been subject to multiple references and critical discussions about the ideas depicted, and although its temporary controversy and its depressing content may pretend to be spiritually dangerous, Det Sjunde Inseglet is arguably the most original and visionary adaptation of the Book of Revelations that introduced the condemnation to every single non-believer person. The character of the Grim Reaper, of course, is not real. It is an illusion of our hopeless attempts to achieve redemption because of our past actions with brand new ones. If we make a list of the things that remain at the end, we would be definitely shocked to see that if such things can be written down, they would be negative and disastrous.


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