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Published on August 23rd, 2009 | by Allan


One you might have missed: The Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal

Quite often there’s a work I will studiously avoid because of its place in the canon. To this day I haven’t read Kerouac’s On The Road, almost being embarrassed to start as it’s considered such a must read, and has an inpenetrable fog of importance now, to read it I’d need to book a fortnight off.

Another work that’s had that fog condense around it is Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (Sweden, 1957). I picked it up in a rental lust this week from Xtravision (5 DVDs for a fiver for a week will do that to you). Again, for someone that has a passion for the projected light of the human story it’s an intimidating embarrassment bringing it to the counter: for a cinephile, it’s akin to the first time buying over the counter condoms. To give this shame context, I have seen Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey and The Meaning of Life many times.

The Seventh Seal easily surpasses its weighty arthouse pedigree. It is at once modern and distant, modern in its concerns and distant in its vague medieval setting. Shot on a tiny budget and filmed in just 35 days, it tells the story of a continent in rapturous fear of the end of the world, where vague signs and omens are an excuse for violent panaceas, and God is as much a morbid thought as a supernatural comforter. A knight returning from the Crusades attempts to outwit Death in a game of Chess, in order to live. He knows Death plays Chess from engravings and paintings, and Death agrees to the match. This becomes the iconic centrepoint for the film, the black and white of the board a counterpoint to the grey moral vagaries of Swedish society that play out around it.
The Seventh Seal has some fantastic dialogue, the greater portion of it spoken by the Knight’s squire (played with a defiant humour by Gunnar Björnstrand and now one of my favourite cinematic characters), and is visually stunning. Save for a few scenes, it is shot out of doors, and some of the chance changes in light that Bergman had are frankly unsettling (a death scene has a beautiful transition from dark to intense light that I assumed was a studio effect, but was in fact shot on location and was the sun happening to breaking through the clouds). It is a reminder that Art (with a deliberate capital letter) is as good a means as religion for connecting with the sublime and the profound; and it is as good a means as any for reconciling our insignificance in death with our immense capacity for morality and empathy while we live.

(The Seventh Seal is available from Amazon.)

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About the Author

Allan is a Galway based cartoonist with a smörgåsbord of interests including visual art, music, technology and politics, and has always wanted to use smörgåsbord in a sentence. He also blogs at Caricatures Ireland.

9 Responses to One you might have missed: The Seventh Seal

  1. Seralu says:

    Nice review Allan! I really liked what you had to say about Art being just as much a means as Religion for accessing what is best in ourselves…I was only pondering all that yesterday. Haven’t seen “Seventh Seal” in years, but was watching “Through a Glass Darkly” the other week. You should def check that one out, though I think my favourite of his is “Cries and Whispers”!

  2. Allan says:

    Thanks Sarah! Fanny and Alexander is another recommendation I got today from @Eoghans. I might see about a box set at some stage…

  3. Stan says:

    Good post Allan. Bergman’s films have an unfortunate reputation for being difficult and miserable, but that’s only partly true for some of his films! As morbid epic art films go, The Seventh Seal is perfectly accessible – and a visual feast, as you point out. Even viewers reared on Bill & Ted will forget the parodies once they get stuck in.

  4. Allan says:

    Ha! I was one such viewer Stan so you’re right.

  5. Michael says:

    Great review Allan. Reminds me of watching it on video and the tape turning to blizzard 5 min from the end (cheap Boots tapes). Autumn Sonata is another pretty good film of Bergman’s.
    Oh, don’t bother with On The Road, I think it’s a must when you’re about 18 that doesn’t really carry to our age. I could be wrong, I haven’t read it since, but cringe a bit thinking about it!

  6. Stan says:

    ‘I was one such viewer’

    You and me both, though I think I saw Bogus Journey and Seventh Seal around the same time. I like my sublime and ridiculous on the same plate. By the way, you missed a great chance to use “smörgåsbord” there. You’ll have to watch another Bergman film.

  7. Allan says:

    I’ve used it in the biography. I am satisfied.

  8. Darren Byrne says:

    What a great review. This is one of those films I’ve put off watching for years. I don’t tend to go for heavy dramas or arthouse pics, but you’ve convinced me.

    To XtraVision with me…

  9. Allan says:

    @Michael, thanks for the recommendation. And I will read OTR at some stage, if only to recapture a part of my teens that I never had. 🙂
    @Darragh, I think diving in is the way to go. Another one I must write up is Hidden, weighty with the arthouse label but really accessible and quite shocking.

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