Saturday, March 11, 2017


(August 1958, U.S.)

Okay, even if you've wasted your life watching nothing but mindless crap and comic book hero movies, you've still very likely seen this iconic black and white image before of Max von Sydow playing a game of chess with the human personification of death against the backdrop of the beach, the sea and the clouds...

Unfortunately, this is probably as close to Ingmar Bergman's legendary classic Swedish drama/fantasy art film as most common multiplex goers will ever get (sorry to sound so critical and judgmental, but unfortunately, that's the way it is with most people who watch movies. Pity). For those of us who are somewhat in the "know" with foreign cinema, there's no denying that this was the film that made Bergman's career and made him a world-renowned director. And for someone like me, who is a bonafide atheist, this film also represents one of the best tales (both in performance and visuals) of man, life, death, God and theology that I've ever seen on film.

During the time of the Crusades and the plague known as Black Death, knight Antonius Block (played by Max von Sydow) returns home a puzzled and disillusioned man. On the beach immediately after arriving home, Block encounters the image of Death (played by Bengt Ekerot), personified as a pale, black-cowled figure dressed as a monk. Block, in the process of playing a game of chess alone, challenges Death to a chess match, believing that he can forestall his inevitable demise as long as the game continues. Death agrees, and they start a new game (see the iconic image above again!). Other characters surrounding Block are unable to see Death, however, and believe that Block is playing the game alone. As Block manages to hold his own well enough during the continuous game, he is haunted by questions, doubts and fears about what his life has meant to him and to God, as well as, perhaps, achieving one great final moment or selfless act before dying. Even during a simply poignant scene of eating fresh strawberries and milk with a loving family of traveling performers, Block is questioning his religious faith and the torment it imposes on his life, despite his obvious enjoyment of this simple moment and noting it in his memory.

The film is often structured like an ongoing argument or sermon, delivering both sides of the religious coin; good and evil. This theme is hardly new in cinema, of course, but when it's combined with Bergman's carefully-layered scenes and cinematography of both character acting and environment, we cannot help but feel as if we're searching through a personal book of unique and extraordinary black and white photographs that are not only effectively telling the tale of man's moral and religious dilemmas, but providing us with the visions and effects that accompany such dilemmas, and perhaps even try to explain them.

THE SEVENTH SEAL, with such images and reflections about death and the meaning of life (Monty Python not withstanding!), has come to immortalize symbolism during an age when Hollywood and its pop culture (both past and present) often forgets to acknowledge the importance of art cinema. Sure, the film may very well be a requirement for those in film school or a passing curiosity for those who live in New York City's Greenwich Village, but it's sad to think that's as far as it goes and as good as it gets. Even if we're all nothing but a bunch of die hard moviegoers committed to the genre of action, explosions and CGI bullshit, I'd like to think (to hope, really) that there's still a chance many of us can allow the appreciation of artistic culture into our cinematic lives, even if we're not a member of the intellectual audience. We don't have to be. We just need to give it a chance and open our minds and our hearts, and if necessary, watch it more than once. Try it. It's worth it.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Antonius Block: "I shall remember this moment: the silence, the twilight, the bowl of strawberries, the bowl of milk. Your faces in the evening light. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lyre. I shall try to remember our talk. I shall carry this memory carefully in my hands as if it were a bowl brimful of fresh milk. It will be a sign to me, and a great sufficiency."

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