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Bleak, dark but with a ray of hope,
This review is from: The Seventh Seal - Criterion Collection [DVD]  [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] (DVD)
BEWARE SPOILERS and needless interpretations.
It really is impossible to consider an Ingmar Bergman movie without immediately running to an interpretation. At least for me that is the case. In particular The Seventh Seal seems to demand that we ask what was Bergman's intention. Was it to show that Christianity and superstition are brothers in arms? Was it to suggest a kind of fatalism that allows some to live and others to die without rhyme or reason?
The story, set in the 14th century during the time of plague, concerns a knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand) lately returned to Sweden from the Crusades. Bergman combines realism with supernatural elements, such as the appearance of Death (Bengt Ekerot) with whom Antonius Block plays a game of chess, and the visions that the traveling troubadour, Jof (Nils Poppe) sees that nobody else can see including his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson). Block is haunted by death and has been assured that death is imminent, but hopes to put it off by beating Death at chess.
Meanwhile the inhabitants are also in fear of death and seek to blame someone. They seize a young girl (Maud Hansson) and brand her a witch for consorting with the Evil One. They hold her in a pillory prior to burning her at the stake. Notice that instead of denying that she has been with the devil, she tells us that she reaches out and touches him everywhere. The only bright spot in the movie is the family of Jof, Mia and their infant son.
Antonius Block goes to confession only to discover that the priest behind the window is none other than his adversary Death, to whom he inadvertently reveals his strategy in their game of chess. Block is searching for the meaning of life. He is trying to find God, whom he complains is always hiding. Instead he finds Death. Can they be one and the same? Jons is able and cynical and sees through humanity's many delusions. Jof plays at life and sings. Mia is filled with love for life. Guess who lives and who dies.
But of course the plague was the great leveler. Persons of stations high and low were brought within its compass, but Bergman gets to pick and choose who shall live and who shall die.
As usual with Bergman we have the most incredible study of human faces. I particularly liked the close ups of the women. The face of Gunnel Lindblom, who plays the young woman ("Girl" in the credits) that Jons saves from being raped, is particularly striking and intense. I recall her from The Virgin Spring (1960) in which she played Ingeri, the Odin-worshipping servant. The face of Bibi Andersson is a delight with her quick, pretty eyes and her engaging smile.
But Bergman also concentrates on the faces of the bit players, in the mead hall and at the burning and as they watch the traveling players at their song and dance. With Bergman people are intensely real, up close and always personal. And he knows what they think and how they act. He shows us here, as he does in all his films, human hypocrisy and stupidity, human love and frailty. The landscape is bleak, the shadows are dark and life is harsh. Humans take their quick pleasures and then they die. That is the message I think that Bergman is sending to us.
No student of film should miss this, one of the most talked about films ever made, and perhaps Bergman's first great work of art. He died only recently in 2007, not long after being voted (In Time Magazine, I think) as the greatest living director.