Directed and Written by Ingmar Bergman
Produced by Allan Ekelund
I strongly suspect that THE SEVENTH SEAL is one of those movies that a lot of people say they’ve seen but they never have. You know what I mean. When you say that you’ve seen THE SEVENTH SEAL it seems to automatically cloak you in a shimmering, gauzy aura of intellectual film respectability. Hey, anybody can say they’ve seen “Porky’s” or “Viva Las Vegas”. But say that you’ve seen one of the true and honest masterpieces of world cinema, directed by the great Ingmar Bergman whose movies take us to existential levels that had never been imagined before he came along, people kinda take a step back and say ‘whoa’. After all, if you can claim to have seen a movie that has been described as an epic insight into the spiritual and philosophical themes of Man then that must make you some heavy kind of dude (or dudette) right? I mean, only people who are really into ‘Film’ can understand a movie that deals with nothing less than the meaning of God in a world of death and despair, right?
Nah. Nothing of the kind. THE SEVENTH SEAL isn’t a fun date movie to be sure but I think that the sheer weight of the reputation it has garnered over the years might cause people to stay away from it as I did when I was younger. I’d heard a lot about the movie, of course and had even caught parts of it here and there when it occasionally aired on PBS way back in my late 20’s but it wasn’t until my mid 40’s that I sat down and watched the thing and discovered to my surprise that it wasn’t so bad. And I suppose that as I get older the subject matter and themes of THE SEVENTH SEAL are becoming less and less of abstract notions and more of a spiritual reality to me.
Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow) is a weary knight returning to his native Sweden after spending 14 long years campaigning in The Crusades. Accompanied by his faithful, sardonic squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand) they travel through a world in the grip of The Black Plague where everyone is either dying, praying not to die or going mad around them. Antonius has lost his faith in himself, in Man and most of all, in God. He and Jons stop at a lonely, rocky beach to rest themselves and their horses and it is on this beach that Death Itself (Bengt Ekerot) comes to Antonius to give him peace from his spiritual suffering. Antonius suggests that they play a game of chess. If Antonius wins, Death will leave him be. Death seems to be amused by all this and he explains to Antonius that even if he does win, he gains no more than a temporary reprieve as no one can cheat Death. But Antonius doesn’t intend to cheat Death. He only wants to buy time so that he can come to terms with his spiritual quest to find for himself what was the meaning that his life in general and Life in particular has. The game goes on through the entire movie as Antonius and Jons make their way home as you get the feeling that neither Death or Antonius are in a hurry to finish it because they know right from the start that it can have only one way to end.
Antonius and Jons meet several other characters that join them on their journey. A troupe of performers. A blacksmith and his unfaithful wife. A girl who Jons saves from a brutal gang rape. They all travel through this dark and dangerous world where they are witnesses to such sights as a hideous parade of plague victims. Crazed monks and mutilated penitents savagely whipping each other bloody. Madmen carrying massive, heavy crosses. A young girl, her spirit as broken as her hands is burned at the stake for it is believed she slept with The Devil and brought the plague down on the world. One of the performers sees visions of The Virgin Mary teaching The Baby Jesus to walk.
There’s always something interesting happening onscreen and I’m always amazed at how watchable the movie is. You would think that a movie that has garnered such a massive academic and philosophical reputation over the years would be ponderously dull but nothing could be further from the truth. THE SEVENTH SEAL actually has quite a lot of humor, most of it coming from the squire Jons who goes through the movie with a pragmatic, down-to-earth attitude. There’s one scene where the blacksmith’s unfaithful wife is cajoling the blacksmith to take her back. In the background Jons accurately points out to another character which female tactics she’s going to use to get her way before she even does it. And there’s another scene where the unfaithful wife’s lover is up a tree and Death starts cheerfully sawing the tree down. This will kill him, naturally. The poor guy up in the tree asks if there is no reprieve for actors. “Not your kind of actor,” Death replies with a deliriously goofy grin.
The performances are not dull either. They’re lively and energetic, providing a counterpoint to the seriousness of the material. Max Von Sydow is really good here and it seems incredible that he could have ever looked that young. This is the movie that of course has the classic scene of him playing chess with Death on the beach that has been parodied, copied, imitated and homaged up the wazoo but the scene still has an undeniable power and fascination even today. And the final shot of Death urging the souls of those he is taking to the dark lands into a macabre dance is creepy and haunting.
So should you see THE SEVENTH SEAL? I don’t see why you shouldn’t. As I’ve said, it’s not a good ol’ fun time romp at the movies but it is an evocative exploration of a man’s search for the meaning of God in a world of madness, disease and despair and it’s done in a great visual style and with energy and flair. I couldn’t relate to the themes of THE SEVENTH SEAL when I was younger but now that I’m quite a bit older I find a lot in THE SEVENTH SEAL that gives me food for thought as well as being a fine piece of entertainment as well.