Saturday, July 14, 2012

Short Take: The Seventh Seal

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The setting of Swedish writer-director Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) is 14th-century Sweden. A knight (Max von Sydow) has returned after a decade of fighting in the Crusades. But before he arrives home, Death (Bengt Ekerot) comes to claim him. He is granted a stay after challenging Death to a chess game. The knight is wrestling with his faith in God’s justice, and he is hoping for answers before he dies. As he continues the game and makes his way across the plague-ravaged countryside, he comes to terms with his spiritual crisis. This existential morality play is a potent mix of allegory and realism, and it includes some of the most unforgettable imagery in all of film. (The moment of Death’s arrival and the chess game that follows have become iconic.) The allegorical elements are incomprehensibly obscure at times, and the story’s moral--keep faith in God, and enjoy life while you can--is much too pat, but Bergman’s vision has such power the flaws seem beside the point. It’s a great film, and well deserving of its stature. The fine ensemble also includes Gunnar Björnstrand as the knight’s nihilistic (though just-minded) squire, Maud Hanson as an insane teenage witch, and Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson as the lovely married couple who are Bergman’s personifications of hope. Gunnar Fischer provided the stunningly atmospheric black-and-white cinematography.

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