I'm writing this review having just learned of the death of Ingmar Bergman at the age of 89. It's fitting then that I should now return to a particular work that the legendary filmmaker wrote and directed fifty years ago, which expresses in explicit and philosophical detail, his overriding fear of death, and how this particular fear is one that is has been used and exploited for centuries by the Church for it's personal and ideological gain. As a result, The Seventh Seal can be described as an abstract allegory pertaining to the notion of life and death, as an expressionist horror film rife with iconic imagery and a foreboding atmosphere of Medieval torment and savage, plague-ridden doom, or as an almost sardonic satire on the catholic church, on war, and on organised religion in general.
I suppose at this point in time the film is most famous for it's central motif, in which a noble knight returning home from the crusades plays a series of chess games with the black-clad figure of death in an attempt to win back his life and return to his family. The games appear at different intervals throughout the film, which is structured episodically, taking in a scene of tranquil reflection and eventual performance from a group of travelling actors, the appearance of a religious procession marking a disease ridden town as unclean, and a scene in which a young woman is burned at the stake as a heretic. Thusly, the film is structured to become darker and more foreboding as our central character and his assistant make their way closer to home; taking the travelling actors along with them and trying to cheat death at every single turn.
Even without that central motif and iconic series of shots in which the knight, Antonious Block sits cross-legged across from the grinning, white-faced visage of Death and tries desperately to best him with every trick in the book, the film would still be a completely fascinating experience from beginning to end.
Speaking personally, I first saw the film at the age of 18, having already seen Bergman's more difficult films, Persona and The Hour of the Wolf. Both of these films confused, confounded and greatly irritated me on first viewing, almost turning me off Bergman before I'd even been turned on. Later, I saw the underrated Virgin Spring and my faith was somewhat restored. Regardless, I came to The Seventh Seal expecting the worst; expecting some sort of seemingly ponderous bleak essay, filled with all manner of alienating cinematic tricks and a detached quality to the writing. Instead, I found a film that told a fascinating story, had marvellous characters, and was beautifully shot, edited and scored throughout. Above all else, though; the film was entertaining. It's still as bleak as Bergman is known to be, but the story never drags, and the moral of the piece never becomes too obviously. It is simply a great film; one that I could watch again and again and still find elements to enjoy on a number of different levels.
Even after my first viewing I could understand how it's legacy had endured over forty-so years; with the ideas behind the plot, the power of the imagery and the integrity of the performances creating something that is entirely universal. This isn't one of those films that you can consign to the rubbish bin marked "art house extravagance", or even as being part of the ponderous pretentious image that many people have of Bergman as the stereotypical, black beret, polo-neck wearing intellectual who crafted bleak, expressionist art dramas in retina-scorching black and white, and ladled with bursts of torturous religious guilt and searing personal angst.
For me, it's one of the greatest entries into the pantheon of twentieth century cinema you could ever hope to find (and that definitely isn't hyperbole). A continually beguiling, rewarding, interesting and sympathetic drama that weaves numerous strands and sub-textual layers of personal reflection, satire, philosophy, performance and the art of cinema itself without ever becoming preachy, affected, or disappearing up its own back passage. As I said before, it is simply a GREAT film; one that should be experienced by all admires of cinema in it's purest form, and not simply as a two-hour diversion while you forget the complexities of life. The Seventh Seal, like all great works of cinema, asks its audience to approach with an open mind and to actively question the philosophical and satirical points that it raises throughout, whilst rewarding you with a great drama, with great performances, great direction and a number of seriously unforgettable images.
INGMAR BERGMAN (1918-2007)