Tuesday 11 May 2010

The Seventh Seal [1957]

Seventh Seal, a landmark art movie, is often considered Swedish master Ingmar Bergman’s greatest masterpiece, which, mind you, is a huge qualification for a movie! The grim, austere and allegorical film was less a cinematic achievement and more a philosophical treatise for which moving images happened to be nothing more than a medium of intellectual expression. At the centre of this treatise lies Antonius Block, a medieval era knight returning home from the Crusades. The bloodshed, brutality, poverty and human suffering that he has seen has made him deeply disillusioned; further, with plague wrecking havoc among the god-fearing populace, his existential crisis and angst knows no bounds. While on his way home, in a concept endlessly referenced, imitated and parodied, he encounters Death who he challenges to a game of chess. Sardonic and mischievous, Death’s presence is a complete contrast to the morose Block’s. The movie ends with the iconic “Dance of Death” sequence, captured in stark silhouettes. However, all said and done, this is a very heavy movie laden with religious symbolisms, philosophical overtones and spiritual commentary, thus requiring an enlightened mind even to appreciate the film, leave alone falling in love with it. And, in my very humble opinion, it hasn't aged very well either.

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Genre: Drama/Existential Drama/Psychological Drama
Language: Swedish
Country: Sweden


Sam Juliano said...

Aye Shubhajit, at one time it was absolutely considered to be Bergman's masterpiece, and Andrew Sarris wrote a landmark review that to this day stands as a model of film criticism in many scholarly quarters. But time seems to have unearthed a harsher stance, one that takes issue with the absurdities on display in the screenplay. I of course, like you, stand behind this bleak medieval vision, and so many of the set pieces (like the chess game at the beach and teh Dance of Death) are cinematic standards. I think the key sentence in your magnificent capsule is this one:

"The grim, austere and allegorical film was less a cinematic achievement and more a philosophical treatise for which moving images happened to be nothing more than a medium of intellectual expression.."

Yet, i will say it is not my favorite director of all-time's greatest film. I would rate PERSONA, WILD STRAWBERRIES, CRIES AND WHISPERS, FANNY AND ALEXANDER and the Faith Trilogy higher, though it's all semantics when we speak of this titan of the cinema.

Hence your final sentences, where you right note the film is somewhat heavy-handed and doesn't age very well is dead on. Bullseye!

Shubhajit said...

Thanks a lot Sam for the impassioned reply. I didn't know that Bergman is your favourite director. I had this big mental blockade with Bergman films. But now that I've watched Seventh Seal, & Cries & Whispers (whose review I'll put up in a few days), I hope that the wall has been breached once and for all. So hoping to watch his Wild Stawberries sometime soon. Maybe also his Persona, Fanny & Alexander, etc, or perhaps some of his lighter movies like Summer Interlude.

Shubhajit said...

Didn't mention in my review, I found the acting of the cast largely unimpressive, apart from perhaps the Roberto Benini lookalike who has visions every now and then.

Sam Juliano said...

Shubhajit: The think the exception would be Max Von Sydow.

In any case, yeah, Bergman is the one I have had the longest crush on dating back to my college years, but now I will say that there are three I seem to rate higher than all others: Bergman, Bresson and Ozu, and they are pretty much equal for me.

Thanks for the kind words and clarifications. Again, a great piece!

Sam Juliano said...

Oh yes, I'll definitely be watching for your CRIES AND WHISPERS review!

Shubhajit said...

Thanks a lot Sam. Unfortunately I haven't had the pleasure of experiencing Ozu or Bresson. That's another issue that I need to get rectified :)

Chris said...

The seventh seal was not as thought provoking to me as I was expecting. Ok, but not a great film, I just wasn’t as blown away by it, as many other people seem to be on imdb etc.

But I think that black and white is very suitable for a film about the black death. This is quite a morbid film, so it is not for everyone.

I thought the script did have the occasional great line about faith and death and art, but overall I was left feeling it could have been a lot better, if the script had had more depth to it. I get the feeling people are reading more into the film than is actually on screen.

It did have a sort of timeless or historical quality about it. You could interpret the character’s predicaments and if they deserved to die, but as the film was about the plaque in the middle ages, I felt it was not a question of deserving to die or not, but just a fact of life that many died.

You could see the film as an allegory for understanding how people must have struggled with God’s intentions during the plaque, but that for me goes without saying, of course they were desperate and confused.
But a documentary about the plaque may not have illuminated the inner, subjective struggle with God that this fictional film did.

I recommend you watch the Australian movie ‘Look both ways’, if you are looking for a film dealing with death in a more contemporary, everyday kind of way.

The scenes in ‘The seventh seal’ with the death character reminded me of the scary guy in ‘Lost Highway’, this Bergman film probably inspired David Lynch. But Lynch’s death character is a lot creepier in my opinion.

The above is just my opinion, I have not studied the literature on Bergman. I may be missing some of the symbolism and images like you say in your review.

I agree with Sam Juliano, PERSONA, WILD STRAWBERRIES are great films.
But regarding Bresson and Ozo, I disagree, I thought Bressons prison film ‘A Man Escaped’ and Bressons ‘Pickpocket’ were too simplistic & inferior to other similar works like The Shawshank Redemption and Dostojevskijs Crime & punishment. I was disappointed with Japanese director Oz’s so called masterpiece ‘Tokyo Story’, which I found very dull.

Hiroshi Teshigahara is a Japanese director I admire, the film ‘Woman in the dunes’ (1964) being a favourite of mine, I’ve recently reviewed it on my blog.

Shubhajit said...

Thanks a lot for your elaborate views on the movie. To be honest I too wasn't overwhelmed by the film as most critics and cineastes have been. But there's no denying its philosophical worth.

You opined, "I felt it was not a question of deserving to die or not, but just a fact of life that many died." But isn't that the whole point of it all? That's what existential crisis/dilemma is all about. People are borne, they live, and they die - and that's that. Death needn't be dramatised to appear like death.

I'll certainly look out for the movies you've recommended.

blake said...

I found this movie a little outside my grasp. I certainly enjoyed it, but whatever made it Bergman's swan song was lost on me. I'd much prefer Through a Glass Darkly, or Fanny and Alexander. I do agree with you that it hasn't aged well.

Shubhajit said...

Thanks Blake. Yeah, I too can't say I've grasped everything that Bergman tried conveying through this film.