Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Seventh Seal (1957) *****

There are certain movies that loom like Everest, foreboding and unattainable. “The Seventh Seal” is one of those. It’s in black & white; it’s by Ingmar Bergman; it’s in Swedish; it tackles huge issues like death and religion. All the things that make it one of the great films also tend to drive you to watch “Spiderman 3” instead. As a film buff, you know you are supposed to see “The Seventh Seal,” but it tends to sit there like a dreaded homework assignment, put off for another day.

My advice is to get over it and throw that bad boy in the DVD player. “The Seventh Seal” is an amazing movie, and once you get into it, it is not hard to watch. The first few minutes look like some bizarre, art-house schlock, but that is just because all the art-house schlock since 1957 has been trying to look like “The Seventh Seal.”

There are probably endless interpretations of this film, and mine is bound to be unsophisticated. I am holding off on delving into any of the scholarship surrounding this movie until I get my own thoughts down. The story surrounds Antonius Black, a knight (Max von Sydow) returning from 10 years in the Crusades with his squire (Gunnar Bjornstrand). They return, soul-sick and disillusioned by meaningless conflict, to a Europe devastated by the Plague. One morning, Death (Bengt Ekerot) comes to claim Antonius. Faced with the end, Antonius stalls for time by challenging Death to a game of chess. The game takes place over several days of travel, during which Antonius tries desperately to regain his lost faith in the existence of God, while his squire tackles life with a pragmatic, agnostic wisdom. Along the way they befriend a number of people in various stages of joy or unhappiness, but none of them give Antonius the answers he craves.

“The Seventh Seal” is filmed in a stark black & white that displays landscapes harshly, but flatters many of the actors, particularly the lovely Bibi Andersson, who plays a member of an acting troupe. This is a serious film, but there is a lot of humor mixed in. My favorite character is the Squire, a very cool, confident dude. While Antonius agonizes over questions of God and Eternity, his Squire seems content in his atheism. Instead, he spends his energy enjoying life and committing acts of true chivalry. Here are a couple of his quotes that sum up his style quite well: “Our crusade was such madness that only a real idealist could have thought it up.” “Do you have any brandy? I've had nothing but water. It's made me as thirsty as a camel in the desert.” Antonius is a dryer, more earnest character who represents the part in all of us that burns with existential angst when he says, “I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me.”

I will resist the urge to go into a long-winded discussion of everything I think “The Seventh Seal” means. It would give away too much, and besides, this film deserves to be mulled over, in small pieces, over time. “The Seventh Seal” is not for everyone, but for those willing to invest in a more artsy kind of movie, this is one of the greats. By the time the credits roll on a movie like “Spiderman,” you will already have thought everything worth thinking about the movie, but I suspect I will be mulling over “The Seventh Seal” for years.

5 stars.

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