The Best Movie Critic + review

The Seventh Seal

Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal is a tough movie to talk about. It is a great movie, a feast of food for thought. In fact, the overwhelming experience of actually watching it is so pivotal, it’s almost worthless talking about it. I could write a novel on the Seventh Seal, and still only cover mere facets of what Berman’s movie conveys. I suppose that’s what happens when you set out to make a movie about the meaning of life…and succeed… I can't possible cover everything that needs saying about The Seventh Seal, but I'll start the conversation, because I have a feeling this is a conversation I'll be having for a long time to come.

It's funny to me that 'End Times Fever' is already creeping back into the general public consciousness. Y2K was only 10 years ago, and already we have 2012 syndrome. I wonder if it's a sign of our hubris or our insecurity that we assume the world will end during our lives. It's well documented that pretty much any era in history is brimming with fear-mongers who seek to control the easily swayed with the terror of 'the end of the world.' What a nice reminder The Seventh Seal is; these poor Plague-ridden people had it way worse than us. No wonder they thought the world was ending. At least our 'War on Terror' is, you know, visible. These people dealt with a silent creeping death, that came and went with the wind. It's a wonder Medieval Europe survived at all. Bergman uses this general feeling of being on the edge of oblivion to make some seriously profound statements about what happens when you stare into the abyss.

Bergman’s movies have a reputation as being a little heavy, wallowing in self-reflection, melancholia, and malaise. I couldn’t disagree more. Bergman shows off a wry sense of humor, though his setting that doesn’t seem very conducive to lightheartedness. The leader of a theater troupe in the movie decides they will do a somber stage act about death and the Plague and sarcastically jokes that it will get him lots of girlfriends. At one point the same troupe sings a seemingly cheerful song full of animal noises. The catch is that the animals all make the wrong noise: cows crow, dogs hiss, birds bark, etc. It's bizarre and comical, and also does a better job of portraying the zeitgeist of a world gone mad than a more heavy handed statement could have.

It's erroneous to confuse confronting 'big issues' with melancholia, and the characters in the Seventh Seal are wrestling with just about the biggest questions humans can ask themselves. Our protagonist, the knight Antonious Block (Max von Sydow), knows Death is at his heals, literally and figuratively. Death is all around him, and he is desperate to reconcile with the supernatural. But he cannot avoid the fact that he sees no presence of the supernatural, no presence of God, no purpose in life.

He does not see God reflected in mankind. Every encounter with the church in the Seventh Seal reflects only the cruelty of small men. The flagellators physically punish themselves and berate and terrify others in their attempt to save themselves from the plague through asceticism. Elsewhere, monks travel with an accused witch to burn her at midnight; they are so forceful in their faith, even she cannot recall whether she is or is not guilty, driven to the bring of insanity where death is a respite. A 'snake-oil' conman appeals to Block's pride and piety to convince him to join the Crusades while he himself rapes and steals. That last metaphor is particularly resonant with our contemporary global landscape. He gets what’s coming to him, but it’s far too little, far too late.

The character of Death is never clearly defined. Is he a metaphor? Is he a literal Grim Reaper? Is he the Plague? He seems to be each discretely, yet constantly morphs between the three and elsewhere as intuition dictates. Much like the medieval understanding of death, the boundary is not clear. Bengt Ekerot does a fantastic job molding this archetype. He reflects what needs reflecting, and has the best poker face ever seen. He enjoys watching Antonious Blcok try and escape his grasp like a tsunami might enjoy watching measly humans run from its path.
Midway through the movie, Antonious Block and his squire join with a young couple, Mia and Jof, and their child. The husband and wife share strawberries and milk with the wayfaring knight on a grassy hillside in the afternoon sun. The simple comfort they all take from this quiet exchange in the midst of all the confusion, uncertainty, and death stands as a pretty profound answer to the question, 'What's the meaning of life?' Death will come, whether you're ready or not. Don't waste time being frightened. It is important, essential, not to let fear rule our lives. Instead we must harness our grace and dignity in making the most of the time we have, share comfort with others, and as Bill and Ted say, be excellent to each other.

-Ben

*As we all know, Bill and Ted had had their own adventure – err – journey with Death...

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The Seventh Seal + review