Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition. Spine: #11 Release Date: June 16, 2009 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.
Is this Bergman’s most famous film? It must be. Certainly, years before I saw it I knew what Death looked like as he famously sat on a chilly beach and played chess against Max von Sydow. Because I’d heard so much about it, it was the first Bergman film I ever watched, followed quickly by a handful of others, each of which I liked more than The Seventh Seal (1957). Today, it is well down my list of favorite Bergman films, but that’s not saying much: I still admire it a great deal. I love the sense of place and of time as well as the look at how a variety of people confront the uncertainty of God and the relative certainty of death. Plus, besides a play for television they’d collaborated on, this film brought together Bergman and von Sydow, who plays Antonius Block, the existential knight who is just returning to plague-ridden Sweden from the Crusades.
Many of us now may picture Von Sydow as an old man since he has been acting for the past 65 years. He was the ill-fated Father Merrin in The Exorcist in 1971, and from what I heard his performance at 82 years old was the only thing worthwhile in 2011’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. But here he is, young yet still formidable, playing what could be his most famous role despite a long and prolific career over more than half a century.
The film begins on a rugged beach. Block is returning to plague-ridden Sweden from the Crusades, where he must have seen any and all kinds of horror while he attempted to advance his religious faith by the sword. In all of that horror, he never saw God. Now, when Block returns to Sweden, Death, whom Block had evaded several times, is there on the beach waiting for him.
The time has come to find out if all he fought for means anything at all, and Block is not that certain. To forestall his demise for a little longer, Block challenges death to a game of chess.
Meanwhile, outside of this metaphor (Block and Death will continue to bandy wits over chess while the real Block leaves the beach), Block and his earthy squire Jöns (the great Gunnar Björnstrand) travel across the plagued land to Block’s home. We follow them as they encounter various doomed people, some more spiritually minded, like Block, and others more, well, earthy, like Jöns.
Though I’ve seen this film many times, its metaphors and spiritual questions never stand out for me, as much as I appreciate them on some level. They just feel a bit heavy-handed and, unlike many other Bergman films that delve into the spiritual, lack nuance. That or they are very nuanced and it’s going to take many more viewings for me to fully appreciate them — a strong possibility.
But The Seventh Seal still holds a place in my heart for its strong depiction of medieval spirituality and the brutality the human spirit has often encountered and even brought upon itself, all through brilliant imagery. Surely this is very much the point, but it’s like looking at a medieval painting of the Last Judgment (the movie’s name comes from the Book of Revelation, after all) as Death efficiently cuts down the human race.
It’s a bit terrifying, but it’s impossible to turn away.