The Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal ★★★

“Faith vs emptiness” is clearly a deadly serious dilemma to Bergman, just not one that resonates at all with me. I don’t doubt that believers struggling with “God’s silence” may relate to von Sydow’s character; for others, the idea that despair is the only alternative to eternal life is simply a false dichotomy. It doesn’t help that the film’s approach is so blatantly metaphorical that there’s not much for anyone who’s not a tortured agnostic to read into. All the “chess with Death” stuff may be iconic, but it’s so literal that the concept of symbolism hardly applies. (There’s also little more to Antonius as a character besides as a mouthpiece for Bergman's angst.) Grappling with death itself is one thing, but The Seventh Seal is chiefly concerned with the topic as it relates to the director’s own explicitly religious perspective.

A more evocative approach might have treated death as an elemental force— still approaching like an imminent, even mystical threat— instead of a character with makeup, a wardrobe, and lines. It’s also strange that Death actually kills people himself, à la chopping down a tree with his own two hands. (It’s like Final Destination if a guy in robes was just shoving people out windows.) Even odder is how the clearly supernatural embodiment of Death never seems to factor into Antonius’ questioning. It’s like how haunted house movies implicitly reassure us that yeah, by the way, there is an afterlife, but don’t dwell too much on that part.

Everything with von Sydow’s knight aside, there’s still some of Sawdust and Tinsel’s earthy character work. We haven’t yet gone full Cries and Whispers, so there’s still a sense of a real setting and human concerns, at least among the more colorful supporting cast. Bergman the comic filmmaker even pops up occasionally— most notably when an actor “acts” his way out of a jam with the husband of his mistress. Still, it’s tough to revisit this following Smiles of a Summer Night and its infinitely more nuanced (and God forbid, funny) approach to the human experience. The director has films that I enjoy past this and Wild Strawberries (The Virgin Spring, Persona), but The Seventh Seal feels the first glimpse of the blunt dourness that scares me off pursuing his later work. I don’t mind getting bummed out; it just takes more than watching it happen to Bergman's flimsy avatars.

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