5-Word 365 #100 – The Seventh Seal

Today is April 9th, 2012. It is the one hundredth day of the year, and the one hundredth day of 5-Word 365. And yes, I’m as surprised as you are that I haven’t quit yet. I wasn’t quite sure what film I was going to watch today. It was suggested at work that I go for something terrible just for fun. Battlefield Earth was one name that had been bandied about; unfortunately it wasn’t available in time, but it’s still on the list. I will have that pleasure soon enough. After about half an hour trolling through the Netflix selection my roommate Iida told me to stop trying to find one and just pick one. After that bolt of wisdom, I ended up hitting the button on the first film I passed that I hadn’t seen. No other criteria than that. And so, without any further waffling from me, here is Day 100:

The Seventh Seal

Swedes are a wacky bunch.

Antonius Block, a knight returning to his native Sweden from the Crusades, meets Death as he lands on the beach. He challenges The Reaper to a game of chess in order to prolong his life long enough to reach home.

I had a 5 Word Review all ready for this film before I even pressed play; it was going to be “Bill and Ted ruined me”, but as the film went on it became obvious that that was not the case. Even if you have never watched Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece, you undoubtedly know that it’s the one with the chess. What I hadn’t realised was that is so much more than that. It is much funnier than I expected, for one thing, mostly thanks to Gunnar Björnstrand as Block’s squire Jöns. He brings a real deadpan wit to the tale that I couldn’t help laughing out loud quite a few times. There is so much happening in this film that it doesn’t really lend itself to this kind of off-the-cuff critique. It is obviously a very personal piece of work for Bergman himself and it would no doubt be beneficial to your appreciation of the film to know about the life of the filmmaker; a knowledge that I sadly do not have. Even so the film is still very affecting, thanks in no small part to Max Von Sydow’s performance as Block, stoic yet vulnerable as he prolongs the inevitable and yearns for some hope in the face of death.

“Best two out of three?”

I have watched quite a few allegorical films before – a few even within this project – but this may be the densest allegory I have ever seen. Almost every shot has layer upon layer of subtext and allusion. I would need to watch it several more times with a notebook and Bergman’s autobiography handy to have any hope of interpreting it all. One major theme that even I can pick up on though is Bergman’s concern with the “silence of God”. At several points in the film, Block is praying or asking for God’s deliverance and always receives nothing in response. Death is an implacable presence, but God is absent. Block is the only character who is overtly Christian, but none of the others get into a debate with him about the nature of God as would probably happen if the film was made today. They merely sit in silence as he talks. Whether that was a deliberate choice on Bergman’s part, the characters showing deference to Block’s status as a knight, or something else I do not know.

“Is he still praying?” “‘Fraid so” “Dammit, I want to eat already”

One reading of the story that I took is the possibility that Block is already dead at the start of the film, and the Sweden he is travelling through is analogous to Purgatory. All the other characters he meets along the journey are manifestations of the various aspects of his own personality. Mia and Jof are the family he and his wife Karin could have been had he not gone off to fight. When Block knocks the board to distract Death as they escape, he is allowing his long-lost youth and hope for the future to escape Death’s grasp so that they can go on to live the life he didn’t have the first time. Or alternatively, I could be pulling all of this out of my ass and a five-minute conversation with a Bergman scholar would have me running away with my tail between my legs. But that’s what I love about films such as this: there is so much room for interpretation and debate. This is what cinema is really meant to be. Sure, The Avengers and Smokey And The Bandit have their place as well, but The Seventh Seal gives validity to the idea that film is an art, and something to be treasured.

Sorry. I couldn’t resist.

7 comments

  1. Mark Walker · April 9, 2012

    I’ve been wanting to see this for years. Excellent review and a nice choice to Mark your centenary.

  2. Pingback: Is This The World’s Youngest Film Nerd? | 5-Word Movie Reviews
  3. todayiwatchedamovie · April 9, 2012

    Congratulations on #100!

  4. Emie Faun · April 10, 2012

    Firstly, WOO! 100 FILMS! CONGRATULATIONS!

    Now that’s out the way…

    I saw this film on Netflix, and must say I was very intrigued! But then I saw it was black and white, and that it wasn’t in English, and considering the environment I was in (brother screaming at his video game) I thought it was best for another day.

    I’m glad you reviewed this film, because I now know it’s a damn good film. So, keep your eyes out, I should be reviewing this at some point! Great review again!

    • Ryan McNeely · April 10, 2012

      It is one of those films that everyone who loves film should see, but you do need to be giving it your full attention!

  5. martinteller · May 23, 2012

    “It is much funnier than I expected” — this is the default reaction. I don’t think I’ve ever encounted a review of a first-time viewing of Seventh Seal (including my own) without expressing this sentiment. Although a couple of his comedies are dreadful (*cough* All These Women *cough*) he really had a marvelous sense of humor, far more than his doom-and-gloom reputation would suggest.

    • Ryan McNeely · May 24, 2012

      Before I saw this last month, my opinion of Bergman was based mostly on popular culture. I had watched a couple of his films when I was younger, probably with my dad, but I hadn’t really taken anything in. So, All These Women is to be avoided then? Thanks for the tip.

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