Happy Blog-iversary to me! Yes, dear readers, precisely one year ago today, I posted my first review (The Great Escape) over here at blogger, after finally deciding to take the plunge and move from Livejournal. Since then, I’ve posted over 200 film reviews and gotten to know some great fellow movie fans. I really appreciate all of you out there whose awesome stuff I look forward to reading every day.
|Yes, this is just a blatant excuse to use a Sherlock gif.|
For those keeping tabs, I just saw my 901st film from the 1001 Movies list, so I’m making slow progress there, but frankly, I’m more concerned with closing the extraordinarily wide gap between films I’ve seen and films I’ve reviewed.
So today, in celebration of one year at this site, I bring you a review for an extremely special film to me. I was saving this one for a special occasion; today seems fitting.
The Seventh Seal
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Nils Poppe, Bibi Andersson
I know that I can tend towards over-adulation. I know I am not shy in dealing out perfect scores for films. I know that I often say “this is one of my favorite films ever!” I’m not ashamed of this fact; it just means I love movies, and I love a lot of movies. But with The Seventh Seal, I have to add a new level to “love.” This film… this is in my top three ever. I highly doubt it will be toppled. I love a lot of movies, but even amongst the best and my other favorites, The Seventh Seal stands out.
The knight Antonius Block (von Sydow), accompanied by his squire Jöns (Björnstrand), has returned to Sweden from the Crusades in the 14th century only to find the land riddled with the black plague. Death (Ekerot), however, immediately calls on Block to whisk him away, but Block insists on playing chess with Death for his very life. This gives Block a stall and he travels the land in search of God, trying desperately to find answers to the very questions of his soul before Death carts him off for good.
|I mean honestly... how much more famous a cinematic image can you get...|
An expectation I always have with Bergman is downright stunning photography. This film is no exception, and Bergman doesn’t ease us into it, either: we open the film with a fantastic shot of clouds in the sky, then head straight into the definition-of-iconic chess scene on the beach. The play of light is gorgeous. Bergman is so smart in terms of where the camera is pointing, always keenly aware of light sources. I think The Seventh Seal is more about light than shadow, meaning the focus was not on the lack of light, but in its strategic placement. The scenes in the chapel with Antonius and Death are dark, yes, but we see the profiles of the characters in bright, almost frightening white. Then there is the sun-drenched scene where Antonius picnics with Jof (Poppe) and Mia (Andersson), travelling actors who parallel Antonius’ journey but only occasionally intersect their lives with his. And then, of course, there are the two most famous shots (besides the chess game on the beach). When a character finally meets his death after suffering loud and painful death throes, he is still and silent… and then, to my amazement, the sun slowly breaks through the clouds and the scene is awash in glorious light. Granted, this was no plan of Bergman’s, and he has admitted he lucked into it, but he was smart enough to keep the camera rolling that few extra seconds. The final shot of the film, of the players being lead away by Death across the hilltop, was also an example of luck. All the main actors had packed up for the day, but Bergman saw a gorgeous cloud formation on the horizon that he knew he just had to use, so he quickly threw some of his staff into costume and they ran up the hill. The shot is everything that cinematic perfection strives for: the gray-white of the clouds, the black of the people, the stark outline, the contrast, the beauty… I love the photography of this film, and I’ve only mentioned the most famous shots. The rest of it is just as good. I can’t get enough.
The Seventh Seal takes existential angst to its zenith. This movie is about nothing less than questions of God, of faith, of humanity’s purpose on the earth. Bergman explores these questions through so many different vehicles, and constantly throughout the entire movie. There is not a scene in the film that is not, either directly or indirectly, addressing some sort of heavy philosophical question. This could get incredibly tiresome, as these are not easy questions Bergman is asking. Instead, then, he is smart about it, and deals with the questions in a myriad of ways. Antonius Block is the most obvious mouth for the questions, but his squire Jöns is just as much a mouthpiece as Block. There is a distinct difference, however, between these gentlemen, as if two sides of Bergman’s soul are warring onscreen. If Block is despairing yet hopeful (at the same time, I know, this is an angsty movie), then Jöns is cynical, resigned, and practical. They are such important counterpoints to one another. Despite Block’s despair, he is still searching, still hopeful he will find an answer. Jöns knows there IS no answer. Jöns does not see the point in searching at all. This is an important difference, and one that informs their various responses to situations. Block’s quest for spiritual fulfillment would feel too pretentious if it was all we encountered, and Jöns’ cynicism would have us reaching for the razorblades if we honestly thought there was no hope. I love the pairing of the two of them. They are such an unlikely yet perfectly suited team to discuss questions of deep philosophy. I see these two characters as two sides of Bergman’s soul. Bergman famously struggled with issues of religion and belief in a deity throughout his life, stemming in no small part from a tyrannical Lutheran preacher father who habitually mistreated him. I think that Bergman is both Block, searching desperately for signs that God is here on earth yet holding out little hope, and Jöns, cynical and pragmatic.
Antonius and Jöns are all about existential angst, but alongside them, there is Jof and Mia, whose presence in the film is just as important. It’s no coincidence that the English translation of their names are “Joseph” and “Mary,” and that they have a toddler son. Jof and Mia, to me, clearly represent Bergman’s belief that God is present on earth, perhaps in unlikely places, perhaps even in the lives of traveling minstrels, but there nonetheless. The scene where Antonius encounters Jof and Mia on the hillside and eats strawberries with them practically brings tears to my eyes. The knight has an hour of peace, an hour of happiness that gives him a respite from the quest that is torturing his soul. If only he could realize that the answers to his questions could perhaps be found with the simple life of Jof and Mia…
And then there’s the downright dread of the character of Death. It’s hugely important that Bergman decided to make the character “Death” instead of “The Devil.” The Devil implies specificity to a certain religion; indeed, it implies existence of a god, because we cannot have the devil without having God to counteract him. But Death… Death is not tied to any religion. Death does not imply the existence of an afterlife. Death does not confirm the existence of any deity. Death is universal. Death is blank. Death comes to all, regardless of belief. This is Death who comes for Block, not the devil, and Death is incapable of answering any questions about the afterlife as Death does not care. Ekerot does not have to exert much effort to convincingly make Death frightening (the shaved eyebrows and wardrobe do most of the work), but I still think his portrayal of Death unnerving. He’s so human yet so forbidding all at once. In the chapel sequence, I was fooled my first time watching the film by Death’s disguise, and I literally jumped up in my seat when I realized it was him.
While Bergman may be searching for the existence of God, there is no doubt in my mind that he knows he won’t find it through organized religion. The Seventh Seal is a vehement condemnation of the evils of religion if ever there was one. Block’s search for faith is entirely different from a search for church. Church and faith are not inextricably linked, which is not at all what the Church would have you believe. The Church, in The Seventh Seal, comes across as a peddler of guilt and blame, convincing innocents they are to blame for the plague, selling them on notions of self-flagellation as a means to “save themselves.” In fact, the most frightening scene of the film to me is when the train of monks comes to town, interrupting Jos and Mia’s happy little show. The horror of the brainwashing these monks have inflicted on their stupid followers is beyond belief. And frankly, Bergman isn’t wrong. This portrayal of the Church, in fact, seems pretty spot on to me. I have rejected organized religion in my life, but I have not rejected the notion of deism. In that way, I feel a profound emotional connection to Bergman. He and I think very similarly about these issues.
All of this, everything I’ve said thus far, indicates an intellectual connection to the film, which is all well and good but not enough to warrant a “Top Three” ranking which I alluded to earlier. So now, dear readers, the story of “The First Time Siobhan Watched The Seventh Seal.”
I admit I was nervous. Bergman carries a certain weight, a certain expectation of pretension and difficulty, (and while I will admit he can get a bit pretentious, I do not think he is difficult) and The Seventh Seal has an enormous reputation. There’s a difference between watching “just another movie” and a movie you KNOW graces nearly every Best Of list ever made. So yeah, I was nervous. Nervous I wouldn’t get it, nervous I wouldn’t like it.
I needn’t have been.
(oh god, I’m now watching the scene where Block looks into the eyes of the young girl accused of being a witch… crap, this movie is killing me, it’s so amazing…)
There is an unexpected sense of tension in this film. It almost played out as a thriller to me the first time I saw it, what with Block’s match with Death and its utter inevitability. I remember pausing the film about thirty minutes in for some reason, and I realized I had been tensing my entire body while watching it. In fact, I was hardly drawing breath. Such is this movie’s powerful effect. It’s not a thriller in any kind of typical sense, but more a philosophical thriller, a hypnotic film that was utterly engrossing.
In fact, after I finished watching it for the first time, I turned off the television and then just sat. Alone, by myself, in the room, silently thinking about what I had seen.
Five minutes later, I started to weep. I started to weep, and I couldn’t stop weeping for twenty minutes. Not crying, either. Weeping. Wracking sobs. Uncontrollable crying. I couldn’t get a grip on myself for twenty full minutes.
That was unexpected.
The Seventh Seal is not a “sad” film. I’d hesitate calling it a tragedy. But I have rarely wept at a film the way I did with this one. Which naturally begs the question of “why?” Why, if this movie isn’t all that sad, did it make me cry? It really shouldn’t have. I mean, there are some character deaths in the film, but given that Death has a persona and this is set during the outbreak of the black plague, this isn’t a surprise.
I wasn’t weeping because I was sad.
I was weeping because I had been profoundly emotionally and spiritually moved by a film, and the only possible physical response was tears. I was not sad, I was not upset. The Seventh Seal had touched me, spoken to me in a part of my soul that few (if any) other films had even gotten close to, and it had made me think about the Big Questions. It had found the sensitive part of me, a part buried under layers and layers of exterior walls. I was not the same person I was when I started watching it. It had changed me.
Weeping felt natural.
No other movie has ever, EVER had this kind of spiritual effect on me. There are movies I love because they make me sad, movies I love because they make me happy, and movies I love because they take me on grand adventures. But The Seventh Seal is an entirely different beast. That a movie, a MOVIE, could make me think more honestly about God and faith than years in Sunday school and church services ever could is something amazing.
To this day, this film still brings tears to my eyes. Let alone the fact that it’s an astonishingly good piece of cinema from a technical standpoint, its message of the quest for spirituality still resonates profoundly for me. I can’t watch this without getting caught up in Block’s hopeful frustration.
It’s just… It’s art. This is not film. This is art. This is more. This… this “movie.” Too many feels, in the immortal words of my friend Angie.
Perhaps you can see why I say it would take quite a lot for a film to ever knock this one out of its Top Three ranking for me, because this movie has meant quite a lot to me beyond its sheer entertainment value.
Arbitrary Rating: 10/10 with a special note that if I was allowing for bonus points, this film would have earned them. And it started my love affair with Bergman. He and I, man… he is a director who speaks to me.