…and the quest to see everything

The Seventh Seal

Before even seeing Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” we’re probably already aware of the iconic images of Death (Bengt Ekerot) extended, cloaked right arm and his game of chess with a knight named Antonius Block (Max von Sydow). These are the kind of scenes you save from the ending of a movie but Bergman makes the momentous meeting between Death and his challenger in the beginning. Like what can Bergman possibly give us for the rest of his movie’s 92-minute running time? How many times will Death and Antonius meet again, and how is it going to involve a coast village full of actors (Bibi Andersson and Nils Poppe) and the occasional blacksmith (Aki Fridell)  and witch (Maud Hansson)?

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I must say that I’m more of a Bergman fan when his work was grounded in more recent settings as well as more contemporary emotional and psychological concerns. Although I’m not saying that his work before “Persona” had no merits. “The Virgin Spring” hit me hard but like it, “The Seventh Seal” have the same primitive, storybook-like air and pacing to it, the characters having the same abstract dimensions within a unique yet helplessly dated environment.

But while it might lack the kind of articulation of character that I’m used to in his work or in other works, it does show all of them within this cultural fabric that’s obsessed with death. It is the medieval Europe after all, after all, when people equally feared God and the Bubonic plague. And with the actors and fresco painters as characters in this movie we can see art making these zeitgeist-y questions more permanent for future generations to see and remember. Maybe it’s this distance between my culture and the one I’m watching, a distance I lamented at one point, comes to the movies benefits because contemporary eyes will always see something fresh with the time capsule what Bergman puts on-screen.

A Plague-filled country isn’t the best one that anyone could return to, especially Antonius who has just fought valiantly during the Crusades and has thus seen his own share of multiple deaths. One can read his return and his meeting with death with suspicion, the seemingly noble, well-intentioned man inadvertently bringing death wherever he goes. But we don’t necessarily have to blame colonialism or other countries for bringing death home. Death is inescapable.

Since we’re on the topic of culture and widespread death, notice Bergman’s sober perspective on how the characters form quick grudges and bonds. Men switch territories, actors change visions, women cheat on their lovers. Yes, sometimes, people and their trust for each other are their worst enemies, as Death consistently tricks Antonius with his disguises. And yes, it’s easy for other storytellers to blame other humans or the necessary evil of interpersonal relations on the deaths occurring during the movie’s time frame. But despite of its implications of human passiveness, Bergman lets these characters bond and forgive each other, setting necessary boundaries to keep the really bad people out. The movie also stars a younger, rougher Gunnar Bjornstrand as Antonius’ squire, belonging to a set of actors whom Bergman will continue to use.

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