There are lots of movies on my List of Shame. If it was released before the 60s, there’s a solid chance I haven’t seen it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in it! So you can come here to read about my first experience with movies I feel like I should have probably watched by now. And this isn’t limited to older classics. If it’s a movie I’m interested in, but just happened to miss, Playing Catch-Up is the series where you can find my thoughts on it!
One of my favorite kinds of non-mainstream movies is where the characters question their faith or religion. I’ve been going through a similar re-evaluation for the last few years and since movies are one of the main ways I’m able to process my own thoughts, I’m often drawn to this type of film. Whether it’s The Mission, Calvary, Life of Brian, or my personal favorite, Silence, these movies often speak to me as a person who grew up in the church yet has become increasingly disillusioned with it and its teachings. So of course, once I realized The Seventh Seal was on HBO Max, I knew I had to watch it.
The film is directed by the iconic Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. The Seventh Seal is also my first of his films, so it’s another reason I was excited to watch it. And while it didn’t quite give me what I’ve gotten from some of these other films, I still thought it was great and a worthy addition to my personal filmography of this type of movie.
Focusing on Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), a knight returning from the Crusades after 10 years, the film explores his encounter with the personification of Death as they play a chess game that will end in Block going free if he wins, or Death taking him if he loses. As Block and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) travel back to Block’s castle, which he left behind 10 years before, they encounter a small acting troupe made up of Jof (Nils Poppe), his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), and Skat (Erik Strandmark).
Each of these characters has a different attitude towards life, death, and God, but there are three that are most intriguing to me. Block wants desperately to believe in something and thinks interacting with Death will help give him the proof he wants about whether there is something more than the physical world. This is why he so freely engages in the chess game with Death; he feels like it will provide him with something spiritually beneficial to help him go on and live the rest of his life — a fascinating idea. Jöns is a staunch atheist who has accepted his mortality. He is unable to see Death in its physical form the way Block is. And Jof, the actor and artist of the group, has visions where he sees the Virgin Mary walking through a field with Jesus as a child, and through his conversations with Mia we learn that visions of this nature are regular for him.
As interesting as it would be, these characters never really sit down and have a discussion about what they believe. It’s brought up, of course, but their beliefs, doubts, fears, and worries are all shown through their actions and various filmmaking techniques. These questions were a big part of Bergman’s life, and that is readily apparent throughout the course of this film. You can tell that the filmmaker himself is wrestling with many of the same questions that his characters are wrestling with. On one hand, it’s reassuring to know that the movie isn’t trying to manipulate you into thinking a certain way, but on the other, you feel as unsure as Block, the main character, because the film won’t provide any easy answers by the end. It’s exactly the kind of film that I love, where many questions with many different points of view are presented and you are expected you to chew on them and come to you own conclusions.
Even with this being just my first Bergman film, his cinematic knowledge and prowess is on full display. Whether it’s an intimate conversation between Block and Death or a larger scale shot of the group of characters traipsing through the beautiful yet frightening landscape, Bergman and cinematographer Gunnar Fischer are able to evoke just the right kind of response from you as a member of the audience. I’ll certainly be seeking out more films from Bergman in the future because this one was definitely special.
I said at the top that this didn’t quite give me what some more modern examples have and I think that’s largely because of how the film narratively meanders. Even with its short 96 minute runtime, it still feels slow-moving. I don’t take this as a negative of the film, but it certainly feels more atmospheric and cerebral than something like Silence which is continually asking questions and putting you in a “what would you do?” situation. But this method works perfectly for The Seventh Seal. The formidably curious tone that is placed over the whole film puts you in a headspace that welcomes thought, as morbid as it might be. Its morbidity is purposeful and useful, and I completely embrace and love it.
Even though I’m 64 years late to the party, The Seventh Seal is without a doubt a worthy addition to one of my favorite subgenres of film. It asks tough questions and doesn’t give easy answers, which is perfect for me as someone who is asking these questions in my own way because it provides a very specific context that fosters thought. It creates a world and a place that pulls you in and intrigues you the whole time. And most importantly, it emphasizes the importance of art in the quest to answering the types of questions about the human experience that is poses. It is often listed among the best films of all time and it belongs in that conversation without a second thought.