Published on August 23rd, 2009 | by Allan9
One you might have missed: 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.)