The Seventh Seal (1957)

THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)
aka Det Sjunde inseglet
Article 2859 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 3-6-2009
Posting Date: 6-11-2009
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Featuring Gunnar Bjornstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Nils Poppe
Country: Sweden

A knight returns from the crusades to find his land beset by the black plague. He also finds Death personified waiting for him, and he challenges him to a game of chess in the hope that, in the interim, he can find the proof he craves of the existence of God.

I’d heard about this movie for years, and I’ve been eagerly waiting to see it. I’ve actually had a copy now for a few years, but I knew it was destined to come up in my hunt list, so I was holding off until then. I fully expected to be fascinated by the film (as I was by the other Bergman movies I’ve seen), but I did’t expect to be quite so moved as I was.

The Knight is played by Max von Sydow, who is only fourth-billed in the credits (hence his omission in the cast list above, as I only include the three top-billed performers). It is his conflict that gives the movie its emotional center, and, in von Sydow’s hands, the inner conflict that drives his search is so real that its palpability makes the movie extraordinarily powerful. The movie uses him a bit sparingly, but gives us a plethora of other characters who play into the conflict; his squire feels at peace with his disbelief and has found a way to live life that gives it a meaning for him. Other characters play symbolic roles in the conflict; there’s a group of actors, two of which are married, named Joseph and Mary, and have a young child (how’s that for symbolism?), a butcher and his flirty wife, and a witch who, having had commerce with the devil, is of special interest to the knight. The direction is moody and powerful; Bergman was (among other things) a skillful fantasist, and could have made great horror movies. I’ve heard that Bergman’s work is so somber as to be humorless, but I find him to have just the right touch with humor; there were several times in this movie where I laughed out loud at the observations and he situations of the various characters. This is one revered classic that didn’t disappoint me in the least, and I fully believe it is worthy of its status as one of the greatest motion pictures of all time.

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