The mere thought of death is enough to scare anyone, let alone us here in the States. Those that aren’t haunted in some way of our final breaths are desensitized or brainwashed; you can shrug your shoulders all you like, but we’re always at the graceful whim of the reaper. But what if you could elude Death, for however short of a time, by challenging him to something as simple as a game of chess?
The Crusades have left noble knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) weary and disillusioned. With his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), Antonious begins the long pilgrimage back to his homeland. But all is not well, as it becomes apparent when Death (Bengt Ekerot) arrives to tell Antonious that his time has come. Suspecting the end was nigh anyway, Antonius proposes a chess game to keep Death at bay for the time being. Knowing the angel of darkness can only come back in between jobs, the knight bides his time in hopes of settling his affairs before retiring for his eternal slumber.
Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is a classic for a reason. The film depicts the desperate struggle of clinging to life even when life itself seems abandoned. The sets are bleak, characters perish due to famine, and the end of days most definitely feels imminent. Witches are lynched and bodies burned as the word of God’s plague continues spreading. Between the ravages of disease and religious oppression so vividly painted, one wonders why Antonius wouldn’t want to instantly embrace Death.
Characters are what make The Seventh Seal as riveting as it is. It’s no secret that Bergman’s films are seldom joyous, though he makes an effort to lighten this story’s dour atmosphere. Though The Seventh Seal personifies gloom, the addition of the clown Jof (Nils Poppe) brings some much-desired color into frame. Jof’s visions supply his decaying world with a mixture of hope and spiritual essence, while his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) keeps his optimism close to earth. Meanwhile, Jöns’ cynicism is pulverizing to a fault, as his master Antonius struggles to maintain contentment in any form. Tossing all of these characters into the same medieval bakery results in a tapestry as mesmerizing to view as it is depressing. Individuals may be hopeful, but as Bergman likes to remind us, the world is cruel.
The story keeps perfect pace with the characters. The Seventh Seal centers most famously on the staving-off of death, but it also involves issues of faith, true chivalry, the moral ambiguity of the Crusades, and so on. The film is rich, emotional, and fascinating, the work of a genius willing to share with the viewing public what can only be described as philosophical torment. The emotions within drive the story, as well as the story drives the emotions to an odd and fleeting conclusion.
Waste no more time if you haven’t had the privilege of witnessing The Seventh Seal. Its world is dreary and characters burned-out, but it has a lot to offer as far as the soul is concerned. This is the nonpareil of Bergman’s work and an outright cinema masterpiece.
Check out the trailer for The Seventh Seal here.