The Seventh Seal (1957)
Man, when did movies stop being this deep?
The Seventh Seal is about a disillusioned medieval knight who wakes up on an ocean shore, looks to his left and finds Death himself walking down the beach in his general direction. Since everyone knows how much Death loves board games, the knight thinks quick and challenges him to a chess match in order to buy some time before his time is up. Ever the gambling addict/Bobby Fischer fanboy, Death accepts the offer and allows the knight to postpone/potentially alter his fate while he travels a countryside rife with the Black Plague in the hopes of finding an answer as to wait awaits him when the lights go out.
So, this is the first Ingmar Bergman movie I’ve ever seen…and the first time I saw it was three days ago. Embarrassing, I deserve to be publicly slapped in an IKEA for this shame I’ve brought upon my family, but better late than never, I suppose. Of all the movies that make up his life’s work, I guess it’s only natural that I’d go with the one that inspired the best scene from Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, and while it could have used more melvins (same goes for every movie), I can certainly see why so many folks hold this in such high regard.
It’s probably the most redundant statement I use in these reviews of mine, but (shocker) movies like this just don’t get made anymore. And it’s not ’cause technology’s changed, it’s not because we’ve forgotten to be patient with movies both as film makers and viewers, it’s more that movies have stopped thinking in a certain sense. Alright, that’s a pretty unfair generalization, but try to think of one seriously philosophical movie you’ve seen over the past ten years, something that made you actively re-evaluate your own belief system as the plot progressed? The closest thing I could come up with is LOST, and that was a rarity, and that’s not even a movie.
But even more than his direction, even more than the performances from his cast, that headlong struggle to find some kind of answers to some of life’s most inherently difficult questions is what really makes Bergman’s work stand out. It’s funny, I immediately liked the initial premise of this chess duel against Death personified, but as soon as the match started, I had no idea what the hell Bergman was going to do for the rest of the movie or what the purpose of the match was outside of giving the knight a chance to save himself. It takes a little while to get to that next step and there’s a surprisingly good deal of attention paid to a troupe of actors that, while I get their purpose, ultimately just takes away from the heart of the story – the knight and Death.
But then we see start to see how the Plague is tearing its way across the land, we see a parade of infected flogging their bodies for the “sins” they’ve committed, we see a woman who’s set to be burned alive because she claims to have slept with Satan, and with each new ugly revelation, the knight and everyone else can’t help but wonder “Where is God and why isn’t he listening?”
As we start to understand the knight’s motivations and his constant desire to not so much cheat death but instead find definitive proof that there is a God – or at least a Satan – waiting for him instead of just worms, dirt and more worms, we start to ask the same questions ourselves. But the thing is, as people, we’ve always been asking these questions, but as film makers, it tends to be a debate left unaddressed. The unfortunate truth is that life isn’t like “Oh, God!” or Bruce Almighty, we don’t have the luxury of having a back-and-forth with a higher being of our choosing because that’s the give-and-take of faith, that you eventually come up with your own answers and keep talking anyway. Then again, that’s just my experience, but if someone had the answer, I’m pretty sure we’d be all ears.
It was an absolutely brilliant call for Bergman to set this story during the time of the Black Plague where men, women, children and priests are dying off faster than folks can dig out graves, no one knows the cause and everyone is forced come up with their own explanations for why they’re being “punished”. Perfect place to prompt all those cyclical questions of why bad things happen to good people and the inevitable “Why?” that’s pointed towards the heavens and never comes back down. Also love the way Bergman does try to give us answers, answers that his characters may not like and can’t be backed up with any kind of proof, but one thing’s definitely for certain: sooner or later, God or no God, Death is a-comin’.
And an outrageously young Max von Sydow is great as our ex-Crusader with a God dilemma, Antonius Block. Even though I only know him for his later roles from the past couple decades, Sydow is legit, he’s always been legit and he’s got some serious on-screen presence. Hard to say whether Block is a better character than Death, because you can’t get much better than freakin’ Death, but he’s awfully relatable from front to back.
The more I write about this and the more I think about how this is one of the only movies I’ve seen that deals with such impossible subjects on such a profound level, I’m starting to feel like an idiot for giving it an 8. Although if the plot had focused more on Block and less on the troupe of jesters he winds up traveling with, chances are it would be at a 9. All the same, it’ll probably get there on the next viewing.
Alright, I think I’ve run my mouth off enough about Bergman’s timeless script and everything it covers, and while he does film it all with a stark beauty that, like everything else here, doesn’t feel dated in the least, that seems to be the most minor of his accomplishments. The Seventh Seal is fascinating stuff that deserves to be seen and deserves to be emulated on some level by film makers today. Forget about the black-and-white, forget about it’s 1957 release date, forget about the subtitles (Swedish is a relatively hilarious language to listen to anyway), you don’t know what you’re missing out on.