The Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal ★★★★★

The local arthouse decided to screen a pristine print of this striking medieval film. I was eagerly awaiting to come back to it again. It managed to impress me even more.

The Seventh Seal is an inquisitive masterclass of deep ideas. It is so singular and seems unable to be put into classification. It's an exhilarating amendment about the presence of Death. It's a thought provoking treatise on the absence of God. It's also an eloquent example of people who are besieged in faith and reason. But it's mainly a reflection on coping with doubt.

It's impressive that Bergman hasn't entrenched all of this in funereal air. That could've been the fallout of a religious study in self importance. Instead, his knack for surprising lightheartedness is here. The results are somewhat of a wonderfully complete package upon the plagued Middle Ages. This is a work that is powerful, sinister, whimsical and even wonderfully eccentric. It encompasses the lot.

There's no question that it's filled with hauntingly iconic imagery. That's what managed to stay with me the most on first viewing. In one of the more beguiling intro sequences ever committed to celluloid—the film opens on a foggily menacing sky as a black eagle glides, followed by a knight and his squire who've returned from the slaughter of the Crusades. The tempestuous sea is risen in a freakishly chilling background as the knight is approached by Death. The black clad figure is always looming from behind. They play a game of chess. It serves as a metaphorical struggle for the knight to find God in his heart.

That knight is played with contemplative solemnity by Max von Sydow. His character, Antonius Block, is put on a two-hander with Death in several chess matches and a probing confessional. Along the way, Death has attempted to claim Antonius' life. But he chooses to revel in playfulness. He is amused by the knight’s challenge to let the game go on. It's elating to watch. As a heavier facet, Bergman has created a fully-formed character in Antonius through his questioning agnosticism. He finds no redeeming value on Earth. He has lost the belief in a reunion with his wife. He has little faith that there is a better afterlife in Heaven. It's incredibly deep and always pondering.

On the contrary, Antonius' squire is the hilariously cynical Jöns, a scoundrel who enjoys to provoke his master’s sensibilities with obscene songs and crass behaviour. He is played by Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrand with roguish delight and precise comic timing. He is also given a characteristic that's opposing to Antonius. He sheds a large scar and a downtrodden presence. It's as if he has experienced many more years in the war. As for Antonius, his glistening blonde hair and sculpted features are almost stainless. But the angelic face of Antonius is still tussled with a soul that has been conflicted in doubt. Jöns is content to plod along and not be marred by his ideologies. I really liked that distinction.

There's another narrative thread that shows Bergman at his most seamlessly exuberant. It's a surprising antithesis to the more headier themes. Jof and his wife Mia are two travelling actors who have a baby boy. In their first scene, Jof confesses to seeing the Virgin Mary teaching the Child to walk in the grasslands. It's one of the most invigorating examples of a spiritual vision that I have seen in a film. It's enlivening for him and an actual wonder to see in the distance. At the same time, this duo embark on playful bickering and it's a more buoyant subplot to the darker strands of this dramatic fable.

They all join together by happenstance. Relaxation and serenity in the open. A country picnic of wild strawberries and milk as they find remnants of safety from the plague. It's beautiful to be in their company and Antonius seems to have found a briefly rewarding memory to cling onto. It's one that he will try to cherish. But it's one that isn't fully everlasting in his life.

These moments of glee are mostly delivered by Jöns as well. It's a testament that Björnstrand is given Bergman's first-rate dialogue—particularly, in the sequence where he offers advice to Plog the Blacksmith as he confronts his adulterous wife Lisa and the amusing actor Skat. The knavish Jöns stands from behind and finishes Plog's sentences. It's absolutely hilarious stuff. What follows is even better as Death returns with an actual saw to make his due.

At the same time, it simultaneously crosses over to the stronger moments of drama. This is arguably my favourite sequence in the film. A group of bellowing flagellants interrupt Jof and Mia's circus stand-up and wander into town. They are seen whipping and tearing at each other’s flesh in the name of God. The crowds kneel before and cry their eyes out. It's an immensely powerful procession that shows the horrific depiction of the Middle Ages and how they were committed by religion.

A similar procession is shown in the later stages of the film. Antonius and Jöns encounter a young girl who has been convicted of being a witch and sentenced to burn at the stake. For Antonius, his questioning is in vigorous spades and he asks her if she has formed a clique with Satan. The melding of Bergman's themes and Antonius' own doubt is evident as he looks in her eyes and sees only terror at her fate. Antonius and Jöns are both helpless to stop it and the emotional crux is simply undeniable. That's what manages to bring The Seventh Seal to an intensely personal light. Those stronger dynamics. It reaches a new plateau.

That plateau is when the film begins to solidify that distinction between silence and God. It is only a matter of time until Death prevails. It's when the darkness is able to make his inextricable and literal link. The result is a fateful epilogue that continues to have me reeling on the power of such pessimism. It's impossible to escape. The fear of the unknown awaits us.

Ultimately, The Seventh Seal is a film that could very well be a product of Bergman's own exorcism in battling his demons. He wants to offer a perspective on his own dread of the eternal darkness. But at the same time, it's rather masterful in the ability to amuse as people try to escape from the plague that surrounds them. There's light. There's darkness. There's love. There's lust. There's hope. There's despair. There's faith. There's doubt. There's comedy. There's tragedy. And of course, there is life and death. It's a film that offers such a compelling dichotomy on Bergman's most prominent themes. I love everything about it.

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