So continuing my go through foreign language films I wanted to go to another heavily acclaimed director, Ingmar Bergman. Now Bergman’s films are ones that I’ve not been sure whether I’d like. Sure they were heavily acclaimed but if films like those don’t grab me, I tend to get bored really easily. However, that was not the case with The Seventh Seal. Whilst it is a bit pretentious, it was still heavily engaging and fascinating.The film focuses on a knight who has come home following 10 years spent fighting in the Crusades, with his homeland being ravaged by the Black Death. When he arrives on shore he is greeted by Death, who has come to take him, but the knight is able to stall Death by asking for a game of chess, hoping the game will last long enough for him to get back home to see his wife. Along the journey, the knight and his squire encounter a number of people who all have their own reactions to death. Now throughout the film these reactions to death are what give the film a lot of it’s power, each reaction feeling genuine for the characters. Some being afraid of death, doing anything to avoid their fate, others are more accepting of death due to the horrors that are being seen in the world with the Crusades and the Black Death. These reactions to death also give the film a good deal of dark comedy, which is needed for events as heavy as these. There’s also this dark tone throughout the film that fits the feel of the Black Death, with the cynical nature of the squire and the whole religious fanaticism, with witch burnings and self-flagellation being commonplace. It creates a unique atmosphere of foreboding that gives the film a lot of it’s power. There are also interesting questions raised about the nature of religion, the frustration people have towards God and the ways in which people convince others to do violence in the name of God. However, some parts of the film are not as effective as others, with a lot of scenes with the actors seeming to go on too long and not really seeming to have a point to them. The characters themselves were well written and acted, but the overall feel of the scenes didn’t quite work in the grand scheme of the film for me.
In terms of the performances, Max Von Sydow does a great job as the Knight, showing his frustration with the world and his desire to do one worthwhile deed before he dies. As Death, Bengt Ekerot gives a commanding performance, having a unique, imposing presence which he brings to the character along with having a good deal of dark comedy. Gunnar Bjornstrand meanwhile brings a good deal of cynicism as the squire, whilst on the other side of the coin Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson bring a great deal of heart and levity as the actors Jof and Mia, the few elements of hope and kindness in the film being seen through their performances.
On a technical level, this is very impressive. The design of Death takes inspiration from the classical depictions of Death in art, combined with the performance of Ekerot, to create a unique incarnation of Death, one which has been the inspiration for dozens of other depictions of the character. The use of quiet, combined with the shots of the Swedish countryside create an air of melancholy to the whole film, filling every moment of the film with dread due to the deafening silence, using the language of cinema to show the damage done to the world by both the Crusades and the Black Death and how little hope and light there is, the film being pervaded by shadows.
Overall, whilst there are parts of the film that I didn’t quite get and which didn’t work for me, the strong thematic weight of the film, along with the effective usage of the language of cinema, help to give The Seventh Seal a unique power and makes it one of the most effective films to deal with death, even if all of it isn’t for me.
My Rating: 4/5