The Seventh Seal (1957)

Viewed February 19th

In this classic Ingmar Bergman film, a medieval knight returns to plague-stricken Sweden and suffers a crisis of religious faith.

The Seventh Seal, which helped launch the idea of the "European art film" in the United States, famously involves a chess match with Death (dressed in a black cape with white makeup) and ends with a young couple and their infant--clearly stand-ins for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus--symbolizing the potential for the re-blossoming of Christian faith amidst an otherwise apocalyptically doom-ridden, dance-of-death landscape. It's the sort of story that could easily appear next to the dictionary definition for "pretentious." And, yet, it works. It's a moving, challenging, rigorous but somehow entertaining film. How does it get away with this when so many poor imitations or straight-up parodies have arrived in its wake? For me, a big reason is the way the performers exude all the necessary depth that this type of story requires and the way Bergman directs them and photographs their eyes. A film, of course, appears to us as a flat image, literally depth-less. But with some films, the audience can enter into that flat space as if it had depth and was in-fact some sort of world. When that absorption occurs and the audience begins to inhabit the film's world, all sorts of interesting things can occur, including intellectual, even spiritual, engagement. There are different ways to achieve this sense of a world, but one of the most tried and true is to find actors--stars--whose eyes don't present an argument for their depth, but are deep, objects that you can fall into and fall for. When Bergman photographs Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, and--perhaps more than all the others--Gunnar Bj√∂rnstrand as the knight's squire, a self-described "man of learning" with a wistful, fateful sense of humor, the audience can't help but suspend rejection and, instead, fall into this medieval world for ninety minutes. It happens right at the start. The film boldly opens with Sydow waking up on a rocky beach and immediately encountering Death, whose arms are held out and he says "I am Death." Right there, the audience of course wants to laugh at how corny that is, and, in fact, they do laugh a bit, but at the almost giddy feeling of having this crazy scenario actually work. Sydow and Bengt Ekerot (the actor who plays Death), create the exact necessary admixture of profundity, playfulness, and old world wisdom that it would take to buy watching a chess match with Death at the beginning of a movie and not groan. It's difficult to imagine finding actors with so much effortless intelligence these days, as if they've actually suffered through serious intellectual and spiritual trials, but here they are and they don't have to prove it, it's right there in front of you.