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Seventh Seal, The (1957)
Genre: Fantasy Period Drama (Sweden)
Starring: Max von Sydow (Strange Brew • The Exorcist), Bengt Ekerot (The Magician)
Directed By: Ingmar Bergman (Wild Strawberries • Fanny and Alexander)
Overview: When Death comes for a crusader during the time of the Black Death, the knight requests a few days reprieve in exchange for a game of chess. Death gladly accepts. While they play, the knight, Antonius Block, meditates on God, Life, Death, And Faith.
When I was 18, I started really exploring film, and one of the first few ‘Cinema’ pieces I saw - and I mean ‘Cinema’ in that ‘hoity, obnoxious, skinny French moustache, beret and baguette’ capital ‘C’ way – was Bergman’s Hour of The Wolf. It made no sense and frankly, it made me a little angry. I was still fresh to the scene, and something that fantastically metaphorical just didn’t reach me the way it would today. My next Bergman was Fanny And Alexander, an epically long film that I immediately fell in love with. It’s been a couple of years since that time and yes, when looking at a list of his complete oeuvre, I can certainly call myself a Bergman neonate. With the help of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book and the 10 Bergman selections within its pages, however, I shall certainly come to know my brilliant filmmaking Swede, which I will gladly call him should his films continue to inspire in the way Fanny And Alexander and The Seventh Seal has.
“I met Death today. We are playing chess.”
Those of you who know anything about this film know its premise: when Death comes hauntingly into crusader knight Antonius Block’s life to take it away, Block replies with an offer of a game of chess, the deal being that Death spare him until the game is done, and, if Antonius should win, he shall be spared of Death’s cold grip. I will wholeheartedly agree with the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book in its declaration that the game of chess between our erstwhile crusader, Antonius Block, and the Grim Reaper “has come to represent the whole of the film in popular imagination.” Though The Seventh Seal’s primary focus is that chess game, it takes place over days, and Antonius explores, even celebrates life during this time that he spends staring into the void. Over the course of his game, he meets a family of traveling players, a squire and villages of folk, as well as a band of penitents who travel from town to town, chilling peasants to the bone with their terrifying promises of imminent Black Death. All the while, Antonius Block discourses with Death and others on life's biggest and most elusive questions, even attempting to glean something from a witch about to be burned at the stake.
Antonius Block: Have you met the devil? I want to meet him too.
Witch: Why do you want to do that?
Antonius Block: I want to ask him about God. He must know. He, if anyone.
Rather than being an unbroken morbid adventure, Bergman's script is often joyous. Traveling players put on shows, get into fights over cheating wives, and have drunken misunderstandings. Of course there are also scenes that are quite dark and truly gripping. My personal favourite is the scene where a parade of plague penitents interrupt a happy play, marching into town bearing enormous crosses and whipping one another bemoaning their fate. Accompanied with ever-exquisite chiaroscuro cinematography, this scene is, in itself, a reason to see The Seventh Seal.
"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."
The film's talent is incredible, particularly Max Von Sydow who plays his role exceptionally. Visually stunning, and with one of the best and most profound scripts I've ever heard, The Seventh Seal is an amazing introduction to Bergman's works, easily understood while still having elements of magical fantasy, and an obvious choice for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book.
Performance: 9 Cinematography: 9 Script: 10 Plot: 8 Mood: 8
Overall Rating: 88% (... And Approved)
Hour of the Wolf is one of the 10 Bergman films that have made it to the pages of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book. I’m looking forward to revisiting it. I expect I'll genuinely enjoy it this time around.