The Seventh Seal (1957)

aka Det sjunde inseglet

2013 #54
Ingmar Bergman | 92 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Sweden / Swedish | PG

The Seventh SealA black and white Swedish movie in which a knight ponders the existence of God while playing chess with Death? Yep, here we have the stereotype of arthouse cinema. Let’s be honest, it lives up to most of those expectations.

So, there’s the plot. It also has some stuff to do with a troupe of travelling entertainers, and a plague ravaging the area, but that’s just story — what’s it about? That is harder to ascertain. Writer-director Ingmar Bergman said he was consciously pitching his young faith against his adult rationalism, two sides he felt were in conflict at the time. It is as it appears, then: about the existence of God, or not. What you take from that is up to you, which I suppose is also the point.

Don’t think it’s all dour and ponderous, though. Swathes of it are, but it’s also quite humorous, maybe even bawdy, in places. But it’s a bit like the humour in Shakespeare: you know you’re watching The Funny Bit, and it does have some kind of amusing quality, but very little that would actually make you laugh. In fact, Shakespeare is a good comparison generally, as several scenes have a feel of the Bard about them. It’s not the language (though maybe it is if you speak Swedish, I couldn’t say), but something in the structure and content of several scenes. (Someone more scholarly than I could probably get something out of that, but I’m afraid I don’t have enough Shakespearean points of reference.)

SealedOn the more easily-appreciable side, it’s beautifully shot by Gunnar Fischer. It had to be made quickly, on a tight budget, and for that reason Bergman found it imperfect and rough in places. This may be true, but regardless, there are numerous striking compositions, and even more occasions where the rich black-and-white photography looks stick-it-on-your-wall gorgeous. I only watched it on Tartan’s old DVD and, even with mixed feelings about the film itself, I’m sorely tempted to pick up one of the Blu-rays.

It would be very easy to call The Seventh Seal pretentious, and I’m not convinced such an accusation is without merit. Not the entirety of the film — some characters (mainly Block, the aforementioned knight) and themes (the silence of God) are abundantly clear — but in other places it becomes (deliberately?) impenetrable. One to reconsider, and perhaps read up on next time.

4 out of 5

The Seventh Seal was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, which you can read more about here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2013. Read more here.

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