Yet another one of my 50% off Criterion purchases was Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” made in 1957 – widely lauded as a classic cinema masterpiece. It takes its name from the Bible’s Book of Revelation, wherein seven seals are opened before rapture takes place and final judgement is rendered. As the film notes, “when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour” (Revelation 8:1). This is a meditation on religion, doubt and faith, referenced in the space of half an hour wherein God is silent. We are immediately introduced to the knight and his squire returning from the crusades. The knight, played by a young Max Von Sydow, starts a game of chess with Death in an attempt to bargain for his life. This is immediately contrasted with a scene involving a family of actors who, despite their poverty, are very much in love and are examples of faith and life itself.
The knight and squire wander into a church with an artist painting a fresco of death terrorizing a village, indicative of the black death (the plague of historical times) that surrounds them. The fresco portrays villagers who are whipping themselves into a frenzy in the belief that the black plague is a punishment handed down by God. The knight enters the confessional expecting a priest to hear him. During the heartfelt confession, the knight asks such questions as “Is it so cruelly inconceivable to grasp God with the senses? Why should He hide himself in a mist of half-spoken promises and unseen miracles?…What is going to happen to those of us who want to believe but aren’t able to?” However, it is not a priest who is listening to the knight’s entreaties, but Death who poses the question “You want a guarantee?” The knight wants knowledge, not “faith or conjecture, but knowledge.” After explaining to Death that he wants God to reach out his hand to him, Death notes “yet, he is silent.” After the knight explains how he feels that God isn’t there at times, Death posits that, perhaps, “God isn’t there,” whereupon the knight relates that this isn’t an outcome he can accept – “No man can live facing death knowing that everything is nothingness.” I do not want to transcribe this entire conversation, although I’m tempted to – there are at least two other existential quandaries that are also illuminated – facing death and the general ignorance to its meaning . It is the core of not only this movie, but also the question of faith and doubt in religion. To juxtapose this argument onto the scenario of a knight returning home from the Crusades to find the black plague ravaging his homeland in a chess game with Death is nothing short of a brilliant intellectual and artistic display.
However, as Pee Wee Herman notes, “Why does everyone always have such a big but(t)?” BUT, HOWEVER, etc., the attempts at comedy relief in “The Seventh Seal” fall hard unto modern concrete, but maybe these found a sympathetic audience in 1957. Too much time is spent trying to humorously explore the notion of fidelity – it plays into a misogynistic theme that is too prevalent. This is a big stone dragging down the greater themes present.
On yet another, trivial, note, there is also WAY too much baby butt in this movie. Gross.
I’m not fond of the whiny circus performers, the baby butt present, the blubbering blacksmith, his tramp wife, etc. This movie boils down, for me, to the confessional scene between knight and Death and their interplay exploring mortality, doubt and faith. The burning of the “witch” is no trivial affair, either – also orchestrated by Death. A quick digress: George Lucas’s Emperor Palpatine looks suspiciously like Bergman’s Death driving the witch’s wagon.
In my layman’s opinion, this is a beautiful film with grand themes present, but too much of the film is wasted trying to be funny and marred by over-the-top acting.