The Seventh Seal (1957)

A striking medieval allegory of mankind’s search for purpose and benchmark of 1950’s arthouse through the lens of Black Plague, Crusades, and-Chess with Death, Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish classic is one of religion’s most powerful films. 9.4/10.

Plot Synopsis: When disillusioned Swedish knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) returns home from the Crusades to find his country in the grips of the Black Death, he challenges Death (Bengt Ekerot) to a chess match for his life. Tormented by the belief that God does not exist, Block sets off on a journey, meeting up with traveling players Jof (Nils Poppe) and his wife, Mia (Bibi Andersson), and becoming determined to evade Death long enough to commit one redemptive act while he still lives.

*Possible Spoilers Ahead*

Review

Rev. 8:1

‘And When The Lamb Had Opened The Seventh Seal, There Was Silence In Heaven About The Space Of Half An Hour.’

Photo Courtesy Of: AB Svensk Filmindustri

Rev. 8:1. ‘And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.’ One of the great international directors of the 20th Century, Swedish prodigy Ingmar Bergman made films that posited in literature and theatre questions central to the human condition. ‘The Seventh Seal’ is perhaps the ultimate example of his filmography’s ostensible goal – a film that tackles some of the weightiest themes mankind contemplates, through a fascinating period-choice: a mid-1300’s Europe in the grips of the most devastating global pandemic in history. A striking medieval allegory of mankind’s search for purpose and benchmark of 1950’s arthouse through the lens of Black Plague, Crusades, and games-of-chess with Death on a rocky cliff-fringed beach, Bergman’s Swedish classic is one of the most powerful & inquisitive films on religion ever made.

The Religious Exposition

One Of The Most Complex & Multi-Interpretive Existential Analyses of Spirituality In The Face Of Death – Through The Lens Of A Cavalcade Of Sinners Asking For Saviorship

Photo Courtesy Of: AB Svensk Filmindustri

The religious exposition of The Seventh Seal might be the most striking I’ve ever witnessed in film. Bergman weaves a powerful analysis of Christianity and religion as an ideology, in the seemingly-godless landscape in the grips of a plague that killed up to ~200,000,000 people and 1/3 of the world’s population. ‘What will become of us who want to believe but cannot?’ ‘And what of those who neither will nor can?’ The film masterfully puts a magnifying glass to the biggest questions mankind has ever raised about the spiritual nature of life – from thirst for knowledge to the secondhand nature and ambiguity of texts like the Bible to why God doesn’t intervene during tragic times of unparalleled suffering to save the lives of innocent people who cry desperately for help only for it to fall on deaf ears. The cavalcade of characters TSS paints is far from thou holiest – a smithe of sinners who violate nearly every major commandment from thievery to adultery to disbelief to misappropriation of the church to violence. They still ask for saviorship in the end upon the realization their final hour has come, but it is not answered as Death leads the ill-fated souls to their demise with scythe, hourglass, and a line of dancing fools.

The Cinematography, Score, & Thespian Pedigree

A Cinematic Mix Of Legendary Potency

Photo Courtesy Of: AB Svensk Filmindustri

The film is packed with contfrontational intellectualism of mankind’s soul, verve, existential dread, symbolism, and multi-interpretability from the agnosticism/nihilism of there being no one up there to help us to perhaps Him being there but ignoring the cries out of unrepentful sin. One thing’s for sure: the film is visually-magnificent. The cinematography & naturalism aesthetics of The Seventh Seal are majestic. Even in monochrome, the film breathes a singularity and individualism all its own from its misty Crusades-conversion parades through small medieval towns to that fateful, now-iconic opening chess match on the rocky cliff-fringed, wave-crashing beaches. The lens work and existential verve of Gunnar Fischer’s visual package paints beautifully with black comedy & tragedy this godless landscape in the grips of the plague – along with a heavy-yet-nimble, aptly-solemn Erik Nordgren score. The technical narrative is sublime and thespian pedigree top-tier – led by a career-making performance by Max von Sydow as the spirtually-inquisitive knight who returns home from overseas to find his country ripped apart by death.

A Bizarre Tarpaulin Of Genre-Jumping

A Pioneer Of Folk Horror & One Of The Earliest Films To Paint The Effects Of Pandemic On Man

Photo Courtesy Of: AB Svensk Filmindustri

Bengt Ekerot is chilling as Death-incarnate (although he deserved a far-better ensemble, more later), Gunnar Björnstrand two-faced as the unfiltered and churlish Squire Jones, Bibi Andersson feminine and emotive as Mia, and Nils Poppe damn-scintillating as the innocent joe-de-vivre/happy-go-lucky Acrobat Jof. The film also features some sly early indications of what would become the folk horror genre later-on, and is tonally-diverse juggling everything from black comedy to tragedy to serious religious exposition to ghastly biological & folk horror and everything in between. One of the earliest films to do so, The Seventh Seal also tackles complex themes and sociology – capturing the primal fascination of the apocalypse and its decay of social order and moral fortitude, illustrating many ethical dilemmas like stealing to feed your family or from the dead, the plights of show-business, and man’s neverending search for meaning/purpose/understanding (especially in the face of suffering to know why this is happening).

Flaws

A Death Costume That Has Not Aged Well & Some Problematic/Archaic Language

Photo Courtesy Of: AB Svensk Filmindustri

Flaws in The Seventh Seal are majorly focused on one thing: Death’s costume. Like bad Batman cosplay or a Halloween costume meant for 5-year-olds, the look of the most terrorizing existential being known to mankind elicits too much laughter to even be taken remotely seriously. The casting department could’ve at least given him a skull mask or done something more than put a drape over his head, right? Besides this massive visual deterrant scarier than the prospect of meeting the character, the film packs a ghastly number of shockingly poor-taste/unacceptable mysoginistic lines by Squire Jones. No film deserves a pass for heretic borderline-hate speech (even when it doesn’t technically affect the narrative/overall film), and in today’s day-and-age when the dynamic above has effectively-switched, we call them out too. Films should not be resorted to being political platforms for inane, crass language and a singular point-of-view.

Conclusion

One Of The Most Powerful Films On Religion

A Striking Medieval Allegory Of Mankind’s Search For Purpose & Benchmark of 1950’s Arthouse Cinema Through A Black Plague Lens

Photo Courtesy Of: AB Svensk Filmindustri

Overall, The Seventh Seal is magnificent cinema. A striking medieval allegory of mankind’s search for purpose and benchmark of 1950’s arthouse cinema through the lens of Black Plague and a game-of-chess with Death on a rocky cliff-fringed beach, Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish masterpiece is one of the most powerful films on religion ever made. The thespian pedigree, naturalism aesthetic, stunning cinematography even in monochrome, and intense philosophical/spiritual exposition launched Bergman to international recognition – for good reason. Even ~60 years later, the film remains every bit as dynamic, heavy, and unforgettable.

Official CLC Score: 9.4/10