DIRECTED BY: Ingmar Bergman
PLOT: A disillusioned knight and his cynical squire return to a 14th century Sweden ravaged
by the Black Plague; Death comes for the knight, but he entices the Reaper to play a game of chess for his soul.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The Seventh Seal is undoubtedly a great movie, but its weirdness is in doubt. In fact, trying to decide if this film is strange enough to make it on the List almost makes me feel like Antonius Block wondering if there’s a God out there. As an existential allegory, the film has a significant amount of unreality in its corner; although much of the movie is a starkly realistic portrait of medieval life, Bergman often ignores logic in minor ways when necessary to make his larger metaphorical points. He also incorporates the fantastic in one major way, by making Death a literal character in the film, a “living, breathing” character who not only plays chess but also poses as a priest and chops down a tree with his scythe. That’s not much weirdness to go on, though, and the best external support I can find for considering the movie “weird” is the fact that it’s been (inaccurately) tagged with “surrealism” on IMDB. I’m torn; the weird movie community will need to chime in on this one.
COMMENTS: The Seventh Seal has a big, imposing reputation as a masterpiece of world cinema, but if you haven’t seen it yet, you may be surprised to find that most of what you think you know about it is wrong. In the first place, it’s not nearly as gloomy as you may have heard. True, every frame of the film is suffused with the foreknowledge of death—Bergman is very in-your-face with his message that you are going to die, and it’s going to be horrible—but the grim scenes alternate with lighthearted, comic ones. The entire dynamic between the drunken smith Plog, and his unfaithful wife Maria, and her unlucky paramour Scat, for example, has a tone of bawdy Shakespearean comedy. The idyllic scenes where the knight enjoys a meal of milk and wild strawberries with the juggler Jof and his family have a warmth that temporarily drives away the chill—even though there is a skull peering over the picnickers’ shoulders. The movie is also not as challenging or enigmatic as you may have been led to believe. While Seal is an allegory, it’s not exactly an obscure one: you don’t need to scratch your head and try to figure out which character represents death. It’s the guy in the black robes with the skull face who says, “I am Death.” Characters have deep thoughts about the meaning of life, but they don’t hide them under layers of poetic obfuscation: they say exactly what they think (in fact, they say what we all sometimes think, but are afraid to say out loud). One final thing that may surprise you is that, despite the fact that the knight’s chess game with Death makes a powerful plot hook, Max von Sydow‘s troubled paladin doesn’t dominate the film. The Seventh Seal is a true ensemble piece, full of episodes and subplots that simultaneously evoke a believable medieval milieu and give each cast member a moment to shine. There’s Bergman’s recreation of what a Dark Ages variety show might have looked like, an amazing pageant of flagellants, and a minor villain who threads his way in and out of the story and gets his comeuppance. Von Sydow’s performance is actually a bit theatrical, and the best thing about it is the way at a mere twenty-six years of age he projects a much older figure, one who’s been crushed by the weight of the world. As the earthy squire, Gunnar Björnstrand, a calmly atheistic counterpoint to von Sydow’s tormented agnostic, makes a bigger impression. He’s more nuanced than the one-note knight, capable of singing a bawdy song one moment and rescuing a damsel in distress the other, and we suspect that Bergman admires the squire’s unflinching defiance of death and refusal to grasp at existential straws (even when he’s about to fall into the void, he exults that he is still able to roll his eyes and wiggle his toes). One thing about the film that doesn’t belie its reputation, of course, is the imagery. Gunnar Fischer’s cinematography, with its many subtly unnatural lighting schemes, is a triumph. The bookend images of Death playing chess, then leading his new conquests on a macabre dance on a hillside by a fjord, burn themselves into your mind’s eye and endure through the ages. There’s a reason they’ve been parodied in everything from Woody Allen’s Love and Death to Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, and it’s not because they’re risible or easily forgotten.
The Criterion Collection 2-disc DVD contains all the usual bells and whistles plus a bonus feature, the documentary Bergman Island, an 83 minute series of interviews with the venerable director shot after his retirement to the remote island of Fårö.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The actor’s faces, the aura of magic, the ambiguities, and the riddle at the heart of the film all contribute to it stature.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker
(This movie was nominated for review by “Nightingail,” who said, “it’s on a lot of critics’ lists as one of the greatest movies of all time, but it’s also wonderfully weird, I think :-)” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)