Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Seventh Seal

It is unusual for me to watch a film and imagine what it would be like in another medium.  Sure, sometimes I wonder what the book that a movie is based on might be like, but that's about the extent of imagination in that direction.  When I watched The Seventh Seal, though, I was struck by its style and tone.  Yes, this is a classic piece of art cinema, but it could definitely be just as successful in another form.

The story follows the journey of Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), a knight returning home to Sweden after a crusade.  Imagine his joy at returning home, only to find that the country is in the midst of a plague outbreak.  Around this time, Antonius encounters a strange man, who has seemingly appeared out of nowhere.
I hate over-age trick-or-treaters.
The mysterious cloaked figure is not mysterious for long.  He is Death (Bengt Ekerot), and he has come for Block.  As Death pauses in his soul retrieval to admire Block's chess set, Block has an idea.  He challenges Death to a game of chess; if Block wins, he lives.  That also means that, as long as the game is going, he lives, too.  Death accepts the challenge, because he is really a pretty easy-going entity with a good sense of humor.  Well, maybe not in this particular film, but in general.  The game continues, on and off, throughout the whole film, but Death's involvement in the movie is not limited to this game.  Block and Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), his squire, continue their trek to Block's castle and pick up a motley crew upon the way.  Block befriends a family of circus folk (Jof, Mia and their son Mikael), Jons protects a woman from rape, which in Sweden apparently means that she becomes his maid, and a few other random people along the way.

The main journey in this film is not a physical one, but a philosophical one.  Block spends the film lamenting his lost faith in the Christian God, while Jons provides more pragmatic opinions on the divine.  The title, The Seventh Seal, is a reference to Revelation 8:1 (which is actually shown as the film begins):
And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.
With Block's lack of faith --- he really wants to believe, but just can't do it --- I think it's obvious that the last part of the verse is the important part.  No, not the notion of God giving everyone a half-hour lunch break.  The notion of there being a "silence in heaven" is likely being used here to indicate Block's problems with faith; even when he tries to believe, he doesn't hear an answer (because heaven is silent?), which feeds his doubts.  Of course, he's a bit more eloquent than I am:
[Faith] is like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call.
That's pretty poetic, and it's been translated from Swedish!  In it's original language, it reads as "Bork bork bjork!"  Block is in a pretty difficult situation.  He has some pretty profound and deep-seated issues with his faith, and he's not proud of his time in the Crusades.  He finally returns to his country to find it under seige from the plague, and then Death tells his that it's almost casket time.  That's a pretty awful time to be questioning the existence of God.  And yet, Block still tries to be a good man.  When he sees people in trouble, he wants to help them, even if he should not.  Knowing that his life will soon end, Block declares that he will do one good deed with his Death-postponing chess game.  The question is whether that good deed will be enough to settle his doubts.

Obviously, this is a slapstick comedy that beats Jim Carrey to the talking-through-your-butt routine by 35 years or so.  Now, if that statement/blatant lie piqued your interest in this movie, then you should probably not watch this film.  This is a very artsy film that moves slowly and has the director's fingerprints all over it.  Before discussing the acting and directing, I should point out the overall feel of this movie.  This is one of the most theatrical films I have ever watched.  And by "theatrical," I'm talking about theaters, as in plays.  It's not just the fact that Death is seen by some characters, but not others.  It's not the stage whispers that the audience can hear, but the characters cannot.  It's not even the acting, which is often characterized by exaggerated physical movements.  The thing that makes this story feel like a play to me is the presence of the Fool character, Jof.  Like in so many of Shakespeare's works, the Fool sees the truth of the story more clearly than anyone else.  Here, Jof is the only character that can see Death and is not on Death's "To do" list.  As the Fool, he offers words of wisdom that are overlooked or dismissed by other characters, too.  In fact, I was surprised to learn that this story was not first (or even subsequently) made for the stage.  Is that good or bad?'s an interesting choice.

The acting in this movie is nowhere near as subtle as you would expect from a feature film made this long after talkies were invented.  Still, Max von Sydow does a good job --- I would look gaunt and haunted if Death was trying to pencil me in for an appointment, too.  Gunnar Bjornstrand performed well as the down to Earth foil for von Sydow's philosophizing knight.  I enjoyed Nils Poppe as Jof and I guess Bibi Andersson did a decent job as Mia.  The actor that draws all your attention, though, is Bengt Ekerot as Death.  His acting is pretty good; I liked that Death was a little wry and patient.  He was also ominous, even when (especially when) he smiled.  This is also the first time Death was portrayed as a man with a white face and black cloak, and this is the movie that gets spoofed for Death playing chess.  Ekerot's work in this film is iconic, and the longevity of these images is well earned.

I'm a little conflicted about my feelings for Bergman's direction, though.  Intellectually, I appreciate the use of symbolism and double meanings in the film (so...much...directorial intent...!  Could...write...30 page...paper!), but this was a movie that felt every minute of its hour-and-a-half running time.  Thankfully, Bergman adds a lot more humor than you would imagine possible in such a serious film.  These aren't laugh-out-loud moments, but they are more akin to...well, the Fool character in plays.  Still, they are welcome breaks from Block's solemn scenes.  I wasn't a huge fan of the score; it felt a little bombastic to me, but I suppose that fits the gravity of the subject matter.  My biggest problem with the direction in The Seventh Seal is that I don't see what it gains through film except location shots.  Why is this an iconic film instead of an iconic play?  It is entirely possible that the theatrical aspects of the film are simply part of a larger allegory for the subject matter at hand, but if that's the case, I still don't like that choice.  This is a movie that I appreciate for its artistic merits and the bluntness with which it approached the subject matter, but the humor is what saves it from being ghastly.  Even without agreeing with many of the director's choices, I still see this as an important film.

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