Monday, June 18, 2007
The Seventh Seal
Det sjunde insglet; fantasy drama, Sweden, 1957; D: Ingmar Bergman, S: Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Nils Poppe, Bibi Andersson, Maud Hansson
Scandinavia, 12th Century. Antonius Block, a knight, has returned from the crusades with his squire Jöns. On the beach, he meets Death. In order to save his life, he challenges Death to a chess match and wins, returning to his village. At the same time, Jof, a traveling entertainer, spots what he thinks is the Virgin Mary in the meadow, but his wife Mia doesn't believe him. Together with their little child, they are traveling through villages to perform acts. They meet Antonius and join him, together with blacksmith Plog and his wife Lisa. On their journey they witness a mob preparing to burn a "witch". Antonius plays once more with Death, distracting it so that the couple can get away. At his home, where his wife awaited him, Antonius and his gang meet Death who takes them all with them.
The legendary image of Death, personified by a pale man with a dark cape, has been used in numerous parodies and TV shows, but its origin still lies the strongest in the second film it appeared in, the existential classic "The Seventh Seal", winner of the Grand Prix in Cannes. Besides creating an icon, Ingmar Bergman also offered a surreal essay about the search for the meaning of life, once again questioning God's existence and the mad religious rituals of medieval traditions that have stayed even today, hiding the true nature of life. Despite its incredibly high reputation, "Seal" is still a little bit overrated: it is very good, yet placing it among the greatest masterworks of cinema is rather overblown due to its monotone rhythm, tedious mood, weak structure with a vague storyline all over the place (just as Antonius meets Death, this encounter is interrupted and he wonders across the country, meeting too many characters who are useless for the plot) and cold presentation. Still, through heavy symbolism Bergman manages to create an ambitious and clever metaphor about life, with great little details: in one of the most imaginative, Death is sawing a tree with a character called Skat on it. The tree falls, but a squirrel seemingly instantly jumps on the newly created log. In another one, a long row of religious crowd passes right by the still camera. And Antonius is constantly saying bleak statements: "Faith is a torment. It is like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call." During the episodic story, Bergman displays the fears of everyone, their denial of atheism and struggle to accept reality, in the end stating how goodness is the only thing worthy in life. Among the demanding films for intellectuals and serious movie goers, this is one of the most famous ones, ironically, avoiding becoming too morbid, yet its is hindered by sometimes overlong, ponderous monologues and a couple of uninspired sequences.