The Seventh Seal is about a knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), and his loyal squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand) returning home to Sweden after a long and trying period spent fighting in the crusades only to find that their homeland is being decimated by the black plague and religious fervor and hysteria is taking over. Not only that, but as soon as the knight sets foot on home soil, he is greeted by none other than Death itself. Not ready to take the eternal sleep just yet, the knight challenges Death to a game of Chess that they play sporadically as the knight travels back to his home.
Along the way Antonius meets Joseph (Nils Poppe), his wife Mary (Bibi Andersson) and their newborn child, and offers them a passage through the woods, while Jons finds himself an unnamed girl (Gunnel Lindblom) and rescues her from being raped by a former theologian turned thief, Raval (Bertil Anderberg). The black plague has brought out the worst in people, while Antonius and his comrades try to find what little pleasure they can in such hard times as Antonius' life is hanging in the balance, unbeknownst to everyone else.
Antonius is experiencing a crisis of faith that's mired in a crushing existentialism, why does god not reveal himself? Antonius earnestly asks a 'witch' who's been found guilty of consorting with the devil and condemned to burn alive if he can meet the devil. Reasoning that if he can meet the devil, then god must exist also, but when the condemned tells him that the devil is in her eyes, he disappointingly says that he sees only fear in her eyes.
Jons is the overt nihilist of the group, not believing in anything, and he seems all the more happy for it. Mary and Joseph seem more happy-go-lucky, although Joseph claims to see visions of the virgin Mary and Death as well. Despite the heavy themes of life, death and the meaning of it all, there's quite a few wryly comedic moments throughout the movie as well. It's not all doom and gloom, even with Death and his scythe forever looming.
It was interesting how everyone had been experiencing and reacting to the black plague differently. The clergy is convinced that the black plague is a punishment sent from god. The supplicants believe if they punish themselves ie self-flagellation, that they will be spared, and the wide-spread paranoia of the day was captured well. The medieval atmosphere coupled with an increasingly ruthless religious dogma and an ubiquitous feeling of the world coming to an end, or the apocalypse was palpable. Especially in the cinematography of the environment, it was very moody, evocative and vivid of dark and turbulent times that's been keeping Death awful busy lately.
The Seventh Seal is bleak and has a deeply nihilistic tone, plus the nihilistic squire Jons probably got more screen-time than the tormented knight Antonius did. It still wasn't without its moments of levity, optimism and peacefulness, but it's all undermined by the fact that there's no cheating death, or beating death. Death is inescapable and only the inevitably of death awaits us all in the end. It can be a tragic realization to understand that we live, only to die.
While some may take the manifestation of Death as proof of there being a god, I didn't see it that way. Death is a constant in the universe, perhaps the only one. Death wasn't the devil and had nothing to do with god. In all honesty, I don't think The Seventh Seal has aged particularly well, although Ingmar Bergman has a remarkable talent for creating powerful and striking visual imagery. The dialogue was blunt, which I appreciated, a lot of philosophical movies tend to work in themes, subtext and symbolism, but with The Seventh Seal everything is on the surface.
Written by - The Sentry - 26/05/2016