Monday, March 30, 2009

The Great Movies: "The Seventh Seal"

The Seventh Seal
Ingmar Bergman, 1957

Man oh man, I really didn't want to watch this movie. After suffering through the pretentious twaddle of Bergman's Persona, it seemed like things could only get worse in a metaphysical drama where a guy sits on the beach playing chess with death. I dreaded this movie. I put off watching it for weeks.

But as it turns out, The Seventh Seal is awesome.

Despite its setting in the horrors of the Black Death, despite a heavy theme -- human striving after an absent or invisible God -- and despite an ending that would normal render it a tragedy, The Seventh Seal has -- believe it or not -- a certain lightness of heart and touch. It is, against all my expectations, funny. The characters, although realistically enough numbed by the terrifying events that surround them, are decent, intelligent people who make the most of the life that remains that remains to them. It's kind of inspiring, that way.

Plot: An exhausted knight and his sardonic squire return from the Crusades to their native Sweden, which is being ravaged by Plague. Death comes to claim the knight, but he postpones the event by challenging Death to a game of chess.

The chess game, though, is just a framing device. The bulk of the movie recounts the wanderings of the knight and squire, of a small troupe of minstrals, and of a few villagers that they encounter over the next few days. The Plague has emptied farms and villages and wrecked social order, and the characters encounter abandoned churches and settlements, thieves, and a general population and a military class that is on the edge of hysteria. We see brutal abuse heaped on a stranger in an inn, a procession of religious flagellents, and a teenaged girl quite mad with fear as she is prepared for being burned alive. All of this unfolds in a memorable series of episodes as the knight makes his way home toward his castle.

The Seventh Seal is one of those movies where you can recognize visual ideas that have been used and adapted for use in dozens of films since. (As an obvious example, having watched Seal now gives me a deeper understanding of a much different but arguably important movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) But the Seventh Seal is also classic in the sense of being deeply rooted in literature. It gestures backwards toward Shakespeare and Don Quixote and The Decameron, even as its protagonist wrestles with the existential theological puzzles that obsessed intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s.

Visuals: Well filmed and framed in black and white, with a very convincing depiction of everyday life in Europe in the late Middle Ages. The casting and acting is perfect to such an extent that the stars and extras alike feel completely natural, as if they were just people living their lives rather than characters enacting a drama. (Although, this is obviously more tricky with the character of Death.) Occasional purely symbolic images are thrown in here and there, but with sufficient restraint that they enhance rather than distract from the film's impact.

Dialog: In Swedish, with subtitles that clearly simplified things by rendering only 80% or so of what was said. This was irritating, but not the movie's fault.

The philosophical themes are carried in surprisingly direct and believeable language, and characters express well-rounded personalities through their conversations. The squire, a smart man who has seen the Crusades and come back deeply skeptical (reasonably enough), has most of the funniest lines, and there is some slapstick humor built around the character of a dimwitted blacksmith, but even the more serious characters have moments of quiet wit.

Prognosis: I am amazed to find myself proclaiming that this Great Movie is indeed a great movie. A must for fans of European film or medievil history. If you have any tolerance at all for films that don't have the breakneck pacing and sleek production of modern Hollywood features, The Seventh Seal is worth giving a chance.

Next Week: The Seven Samurais


DrSchnell said...

As for visual ideas employed in other films, don't forget the scene from one of the Bill and Ted movies where they play Twister with death....

mrs.5000 said...

I must have been eleven or twelve the first time I watched this movie (Hey, Dad! It got four stars in the TV Guide! It's about knights!) and it may well have been my first encounter with subtitles. I remembered chiefly fighting to stay awake--also the chess, and people beating themselves. What a surprise, apparently things are in sharper focus a few decades later, and what had seemed dull and random now appears moving and tightly crafted.

Michael5000 said...

@DrSchnell: I never saw that particular Bill & Ted movie, but it sez here that they also played Battleship, electronic football, and Clue. I wonder who has the username "Death" on

Michael5000 said...

How lame! "Death" on signed up two years ago, never played a game, and never checked in again! I won't get to play chess with Death!

Chance said...

Okay, but the Seven Samurai is my favorite film of all time, and as I tend to take these things personally, if you don't enjoy it, I hate you and I hate your ass face.