Art-house Film of the Month : The Seventh Seal – Un Certain Regard
As said in the first post of the Un Certain Regard film column, I figured it would be nice to focus once a month on a particular art-house film along the cinema movements and going through the works of a specific director. Let us then start our first series with the iconic film The Seventh Seal, released in 1957 by the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman; its powerful and accurate themes, as well as it being wonderfully shot makes this motion picture still being considered a masterpiece of European cinema.
My first encounter with Bergman was during my cinema classes in Bristol, where I studied Classics of European Cinema with other international students. The assessments were a presentation on a specific film or theme in cinema around mid-semester and a final essay; so we decided with two other friends to do our presentation on The Seventh Seal, and I must say I really enjoyed working on something I knew nothing about in the first place !
Now Bergman does not exactly make the kind of films you can watch for a recreational purpose, to relax after a tough day of work. His works usually offer a deep questioning on life, death, good and evil, solitude and human encounters, along with a great use of cinematic devices. So let’s take a closer look at Det sjunde inseglet !
This film is about a knight, Antonius Block, who comes back from the crusades in the 14th century in Sweden. It is the time of the plague, or Black Death, and he meets the personification of Death on his way back. The latter comes along to take him, but Block refuses and challenges Death to do a chess game to save time, and be saved if he wins. Therefore, the entire plot is based on their game, interrupted by spasmodic episodes of the daily life in Block’s little village and some other people with whom he will talk about his concerns.
Antonius is obsessed with the question of death and wonders what happens after life, but also of the meaning of existence in itself. He is struggling to find his own view about God and religion, and instead of blindly joining one particular points of view tries to find his answers through critical thinking, but that is something which cannot be done regarding religion as there is obviously no tangible proof of the existence of a God.
The allegory of Death playing chess has been used for many centuries and became one of the most popular and powerful metaphors to illustrate the moment one reaches the afterlife. As for the view itself on the end of life, the several people that Block will talk to in between his chess game will help him, as well as the viewer, to get a broader perception of this dreadful time in our lives; Jons, his squire does not believe in an afterlife at all, the couple of artists Jof and Mia bring a much more positive idea on that, but Block will whatsoever remain alone facing Death, and will have to deal with it only by himself.
From a cinematic point of view (hey, let’s not forget this is a cinema column), the close-up shots allowing us to feel closer to the characters alternate with wonderful long shots, such as the infamous danse macabre at the end of the film; but I will let you go and see The Seventh Seal yourself to visualize what it looks like. As it is a black and white motion picture, it makes it even easier to play with light in the scenes and Bergman offers us a nice use of light and shadow in his scenes that goes along really well with the theme of life and death.
Sound-wise, it varies between frightening music and sounds but also an even more daunting silence, which says more than any other music that could be used.
In short, The Seventh Seal really deserves its reputation of masterpiece of early European cinema, and is definitely not to be missed if you are interested in this type of “intellectual film” that will make you wonder about the meaning of existence – and its representation in the arts.