Saturday, September 25, 2010

#50. The Seventh Seal (1957)

DVD Synopsis: Disillusioned and exhausted after a decade of battling in the Crusades, a knight (Max von Sydow) encounters Death on a desolate beach and challenges him to a fateful game of chess. Much studied, imitated, even parodied, but never outdone, The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet), Ingmar Bergman's stunning allegory of man's search for meaning, was one of the benchmark imports of America's 1950s art-house heyday, pushing cinema's boundaries and ushering in a new era of moviegoing.

Director Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal contains one of the most famous images in cinematic history, that of a knight challenging Death to a game of chess. The fact that this image remains so powerful is a tribute to Bergman’s skills as a visual filmmaker, yet the director’s true magic lies in his ability to couple his visual prowess with strong characterizations, presented here in a world that exists somewhere between dreams and reality. 

With The Seventh Seal, Bergman takes on the age-old question of mortality. The Knight, returning from the Crusades, has witnessed 10 years of death and destruction carried out in the name of God. Now, he finds himself doubting God’s existence. A key scene in the film has the Knight meeting up with an execution party, who are taking a condemned girl to her death because she stands convicted of having had a “carnal encounter” with Satan. The Knight asks the girl if the accusations are true, and she replies that they are, but the Knight can see in her eyes that the poor girl has gone mad. More than likely innocent of any crime, she has been tortured to the point that her mind has failed her, and is now convinced that the charges against her are true. The Knight had hoped that the girl might hold the answers as to whether or not God exists (after all, wouldn’t the existence of Satan, by default, prove the existence of God?), but his quest has instead hit another dead end. 

It’s a question mankind has been asking for thousands of years: is there life after death? In the end, we, like the Knight, must accept that this is an unsolvable riddle for the living. The magic of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is that it doesn’t claim to have found the answers, yet manages to examine the question in a variety of ways. Essentially, Bergman has created a masterpiece from a puzzle he does not piece together, structuring it all in such a way that the answers themselves aren’t nearly as important as the quest to uncover them.


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