The Seventh Seal

Foxbat

None The Wiser
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Location
Scotland
Starring Max Von Sydow
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Made in 1957
Black and White, Mono sound
Swedish with English subtitles.


Antonius Block is a knight returning home after years away at the Crusades. Disillusioned both by his own experiences and his diminishing faith, he returns to a land ravaged by plague. People die in their thousands and others are accused of witchcraft – agents of the Devil out to spread disease. These unfortunates are treated mercilessly and eventually burned. Block himself has begun to question his own faith and begins to face that one terrifying question – what if God does not exist? What if there is nothing more after death? Can it be that life itself is merely some macabre and meaningless dance to the grave?


On a pebble strewn shore one morning, Block encounters Death. He persuades this dark cloaked character to a game of chess. During this game, Death agrees to delay Block’s own demise and, if the knight should win, grant him an answer to his questions. Block resumes his journey and, now and then, meets up with the Grim Reaper to make their next moves on the chessboard.


Along the way, Block gains an entourage consisting of a troupe of jesters, a blacksmith and his wife, his squire and a dumb peasant girl. They make their way through the plague ravaged countryside – hoping to reach the relative safety of Block’s estate. As they travel, they see their civilisation begin to crumble under the weight of the plague, with villages and towns falling into ruin and religion strangling the land with its extreme measures. The question runs deeper and deeper through Block’s psyche: Is there a God? Does death hold the answer?


"I want to confess as best I can, but my heart is void. The void is a mirror. I see my face and feel loathing and horror. My indifference to men has shut me out."


To put it bluntly, this is a Medieval road movie which poses questions most of us have probably asked ourselves from time to time throughout our lives. Shot in grainy Black and White, this is a dark, brooding movie that slowly unfolds itself through the dialogue of its main characters. Good acting helps it along but this is definitely not a film for someone looking for an intense action flick. A film to be watched and pondered over. The movie does have an element of hope but it can be somewhat depressing in places.


Still, this movie has more for it than against it. Visually rich, sometimes dark with moments of black humour and always thought provoking – definitely worth a watch.
 
Nice review Foxbat, although there's richness to the visual experience that's really not translatable into words. Bergman is truly one of the greatest directors int he world. I have seen more than half a dozen films of his and none of them have been short of excellent.

Other Bergman's I have seen and can heartily recommend:
Virgin Spring
Cries and Whispers
Hour of the Wolf
(I have some reservations about this but it's still well worth the look and will also be of genre interest to horror fans)
Through a Glass Darkly
(horror fans take note of this)
Wild Strawberries
Fanny and Alexander
 
Don't mind Foxbat I am adding my reviews of Hour of the Wolf and Through a Glass Darkly here for genre fans.

THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961) - Ingmar Bergman

This is one of the earlier Bergman ventures, part of a trilogy of short (90-min) films that includes `Winter Light' and `The Silence' (which I haven't as yet seen). Not as ambitious as the more acclaimed `Seventh Seal' or `Cries and Whispers' it is fashioned as an austere chamber-piece with just 4 characters on a single location.
David, a middle-aged best-selling author and itinerant, goes to his desolate island home to visit his vacationing children before going off on another of his planned jaunts. Psychologically afflicted daughter Karin has just been released from an institution and is accompanied by her caring doctor husband Martin - Karin is victim to hysteria and appears to have developed an abnormally fine hearing. Her condition is likely incurable, Martin indicates, and relapse is imminent. David's son Minus is on the threshold of adolescence, a budding writer himself, full of youthful, if half-formed, creative bursts and a source of envy to his father.
The film tracks David's tendency to evade his responsibility to his loved ones by constantly running away from them, his reaction to Karin's condition, the voyeuristic urge to chart her descent into irreversible madness for artistic stimulus (revealed to Karin herself when she peeps into his diary). In a parallel vein, the camera itself takes the voyeur's view as we see the extent of Karin's hallucinations, and how they control her actions, rendering her frigid to her husband's affections, then pushing her into seducing adolescent Minus. In the midst of this Bergman puts up his characteristic questions about the nature of God, Death and the Human Condition, although they play a more superficial part than in his later films and, at least in my humble view, this is more a character drama. The only false note comes in the epilogue of the film with its not very convincing message of love being the panacea to all the world's ills. But this is in most part an absorbing and meaningful venture.
Technically the film is flawless. The legendary Sven Nykvist creates stark yet powerful poetry with his mostly still black and white imagery. It is truly exemplary work. Music (adapted from Bach) is used sparsely but to telling dramatic effect. The performances of ALL the actors are splendid and Bergman controls their puppet strings with a steady knowing hand.
`Through a Glass Darkly' is a gem, smaller in scope, but no less immaculate.

ADDED DISCUSSION:
There is IMO a superficial but noticeable parallel between this film and Hitchcock's `Psycho' - the idea of Karin's hallucinations about God and her `Voices' crystallizing when she enters this specific room to me mirrors the funda of Norman's Mother-role taking over when he enters her room. Of course neither of them are utterly sane even otherwise, but the room, in both cases, appears to serve as a cauldron of their respective fixations. One can see the roots of it in Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde story, in which most of us, I should think, imagine Jekyll chugging down his wolf-man potion amidst the fume spewing retorts of his laboratory. It's what I, in my humble capacity, christen `The Madness Room'.

Karin's God appears to be a strange sort, who wills her to push aside her husband's advances and then compels her to seduce her brother. In the end he is given a monstrous form. People may try to connect this with Bergman's other films about the nature of divinity but I believe at least this aspect if not the entire film is really more at home in the realm of psychological horror cinema.
 
HOUR OF THE WOLF - Ingmar Bergman

I've seen the first Bergman film that didn't entirely amaze me...which isn't to say that it's in any way a bad film but I just couldn't get too involved in it.

Hour of the Wolf may be seen as Bergman's take on the horror genre, specifically psychological horror. Johan (Max Von Sydow) a reclusive painter and his longtime wife Alma (Liv Ullman) are living on a remote island where Johan does his work. He and Alma suffer to stay awake through the nights because of the disturbing dreams he has in that period. He transcribes his dreams into sketches of the bizarre denizens he meets therein. The film takes us through various unsettling episodes, many of which are shown us either as entries from Johan's diary (which Alma surreptitiously reads) or as orally narrated by the painter. This brings in the dilemma as to whether they may be actual events or hallucinations on Johan's part. Alma too is privy to some of these episodes but we are hinted that this may be so because of her emotional closeness to Johan to the extent where she may be picking up his thoughts. The last third of the movie kicks in the final act of Johan's descent into insanity and the most openly horror-tinged segment.

My main problem was that a large portion of the film is played out in a detached fashion that diminishes its effectiveness. My view is that the psychological horror film works best when you are able to get a 'first-person perspective', when you empathize with the character to feel the fear and unease. But Bergman's treatment always keeps Johan at a distance from the viewer - diary entries, narrations - the spectator POV doesn't really work for me in this kind of film. The film plays out in a very measured fashion, sometimes obviously enough for me to look at the running time, not a good sign for a Bergman product. Some episodes, like one where Johan kills a boy/apparition of a boy are too ungrounded to make a good impact. The last part is IMO where the film in Chinese puzzle fashion finally breaks out its punches and grips sufficiently well.

Those gripes aside, the film boasts the aesthetic polish of the typical Bergman product. Max Von Sydow essays a credible image of Johan's insanity although in my view the main star is Liv Ullman's brilliant portrayal of the brittle and passionate Alma. Sven Nykvist gives us trademark genius compositions and we have in Wolf, another gritty B&W visual feast.

I daresay there will be disagreement with this opinion and that's perfectly acceptable since the film's worth has a lot to do with how you perceive it.
 
The Seventh Seal is my first foray into Bergman so thanks for the extra info Ravenus. I shall keep my eyes open for both the movies you have reviewed. :)


I'd definately recommend it if you can get a copy.

The Seventh Seal is available on DVD from Tartan Video and you can pick it up for less than a tenner. Places like Amazon and Play.Com are likely to have it in stock. :)
 

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