Monday, November 9, 2009

Movie Review: The Seventh Seal

Directed by Ingmar Bergman. 1957.

I must confess a great gratitude toward Bergman for making The Seventh Seal. What a deeply personal movie this is, and what courage it took to put it out there for others to judge. What a risk to address such weighty and timeless questions, not glibly or insincerely, but thoughtfully and with unflinching honesty. He also directly addresses the matter, portraying death and a vision of the Virgin Mary and asking, "Is it so cruelly inconceivable to grasp God with the senses? Why should He hide himself in a mist of half-spoken promises and unseen miracles?" Bergman's films have obviously acquired a reputation for being grave and depressing works. Grave, yes. Depressing, no. Not The Seventh Seal, anyway. It is certainly unsettling in the way it probes questions about God and life, but it has a certain cathartic power, forcing a release of the viewer's feelings on the issues and while it refuses us any easy answers, the film is a sort of palliative treatment for the most burning questions.

One may of course choose practically any line from The Seventh Seal and analyze it at great length. Likewise one may choose any given scene, shot even, and find a wealth to consider. Yet as customary at APLV we are concerned with the ideas themselves and such is what we will explore here.

The first question is, why are we so obsessed about God in the first place? The Knight asks:
Why can't I kill God within me? Why does He live on in this painful and humiliating way
even though I curse Him and want to tear Him out of my heart? Why, in spite of everything, is He a baffling reality that I can't shake off? Do you hear me?
Uncomfortably direct, do not you think so? Yet a fair question. After all, why should we be so driven to God, His existence, His nature, His will? Why should this question be so central to man? Why is it so hard simply to affirm, "no?" The shot itself, with death lurking in the background, provides the answer and a reminder of our finite existence in this world. The Knight cannot imagine a world without God. Without Him, ". . . life is an outrageous horror. No one can live in the face of death, knowing that all is nothingness." This then is our dilemma and the film's too: reconciling uncertainty about God and how we choose to live our lives.

One scene illustrates the problem. The comic trio performs a silly pantomime onstage but the townspeople are not amused and throw a tomato at the main performer, Skat. In mock indignation, he sneaks out the back for a romp with the village smithy's wife. Mia and Jof (diminutives of Mary and Joseph) follow by singing a nonsense song on stage. With passing references to the plague, the song is an attempt to provide a little relief by suggesting that all is not horror, but folly. With drum and lute and in jester costumes Mia and Jof sing hop about on stage. With Skat fooling around behind the bushes and the couple entertaining the townspeople, we feel somewhat lightened or rather. . . distracted. Yet the respite is brief. Their song is cut off by the sound of the Dies Irae being chanted by monks entering the town. Defiantly, Bergman holds the shot of the characters' reactions. He finally cuts to the monks who enter chanting and surrounded by people flagellating and torturing themselves in repentance.

Yet is is the characters' reactions to this horrific sight I find most relevant. Many of the townspeople unconsciously drop to their knees, the knights kneel with their swords in customary fashion, a woman bursts into tears, a child obliviously looks on, Mia and Jof look on with a mixture of awe and deference, and the Knight, his Squire, and the girl look on with blank faces.

Again, though, this scene is so brilliant not simply because it asks a question about God, but because it also asks the question about the question. The main characters look on and consider the actions of the people as much as they consider the issue of God through the problem of the plague. As the Knight says earlier,
What is going to happen to those of us who want to believe but aren't able to? And what is to become of those who neither want to nor are capable of believing?
How do we react to the faiths of others? Will the monk's vows and asceticism help him? Is their self-inflicted suffering going to help these people? The Squire certainly does not think so, referring to the stories of Jesus Christ, God, and The Holy Spirit as "ghost stories." The voice of a-theism (i.e. lack of belief in a god) throughout the film, this is not surprising. More interesting is what the simple Smithy says to him, when the Squire offers him some sophistical advice about love:
You're happy, you with your oily words, and, besides, you believe your own drivel.
The educated man and the fool have come to the same conclusion: there is no satisfactory answer. Similarly, when the Knight confesses to Mia he is tired and bored of his own company, she responds in understanding, asking "Why do people always torment themselves?" This reinforces the film's main theme, "why the question [in the first place]?"

What is the answer then? Earlier the Knight, in contemplating it, said:
This is my hand. I can move it, feel the blood pulsing through it. The sun is still high in
the sky and I, Antonius Block, am playing chess with Death.
In defiance of death he had learned to relish his existence as the opportunity to struggle. Yet Later, sharing a sweet moment with Mia, Jof, Mikael, his Squire, and the girl, he says:
Faith is a torment, did you know that? It is like loving someone who is out there in the
darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call.

Everything I've said seems meaningless and unreal while I sit here with you and your
husband. How unimportant it all becomes suddenly.

I shall remember this moment. The silence, the twilight, the bowls of strawberries and milk, your faces in the evening light. Mikael sleeping, Jof with his lyre. I'll try to remember what we have talked about. I'll carry this memory between my hands as carefully as if it were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk.

And it will be an adequate sign -- it will be enough for me.
How exactly do these two scenes differ? What makes the Knight now ready to continue his chess game with Death with such confidence? Perhaps he has learned to relish his existence itself, learned to treasure moments with friends, moments in peace, moments of beauty.

Yet they all die whether or not they come to this realization, the smith and Lisa, the Knight, Raval, the Squire, and Skat. The smith and Lisa die as simpletons, Raval as a scoundrel, the Squire as a cynic, Skat as a coward (taken by surprise), and the Knight with his memories.

Amongst many good observations, film historian Peter Cowie makes several especially good ones toward the end of The Seventh Seal. The first is of the Knight's line, "It's over now, and I'm a little tired" noting[1] how it became the journey that mattered, not the final destination. Indeed this is the tone that prevails in the scene of reconciliation with his wife, which does not fulfill. He has all the memories he will make and death now awaits.

The emotions we expected between the Knight and his wife actually come from the unnamed girl, who only now speaks, looking eagerly toward death, "as though for a lover." Heretofore silent, Cowie says, "she begins to realize the moment she has longed for, the moment of fulfillment, is at hand. She waits for death as though for a lover, with all the eagerness and expectancy that one associates not with death but with life. Death will open a door, not close it: provide some passage to a brighter world." [1]

Cowie's last point is that in the "last supper composition" of the dinner scene, Bergman has not deliberately seated people or created a hierarchy in the shot. Indeed. Who is best off? Which one are you?

The final scene has a certain mystical quality and sense of reverie. The storm has passed and the family stands outside bathed in sunlight. Why do they endure? In spite of the obvious symbolism of them as The Holy Family, I think they are more symbolic of communion, specifically communion in love. Such is what they shared with the Knight, and love is what they carry on.

[1] Cowie, Peter. Commentary on The Seventh Seal. DVD. 1987.

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