The Seventh Seal (Review)

The Seventh Seal is a 1958 supernatural medieval drama written and directed by famed Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and is the first of his films I've seen.

For this review I'm going to alter the format I used for my review of The Birds: I'll be discussing story elements first and then discuss the technical parts of the film.

A knight struggling with his faith and his nihilistic squire are coming home to their native Sweden after a 10 year long crusade. On his way to his castle, he meets a family of performers, a naive blacksmith and a young woman from an abandoned village. Along the way, the knight plays a game of chess with Death, the Grim Reaper, himself in exchange for his life. The game continues throughout the entire film at certain points.

One of the main themes of the film is nihilism. While the knight isn't sure if he believes in God his entire trip, his squire is adamant that there is no God and that life itself has no meaning at all, at one point urging a grieving blacksmith to kill his unfaithful wife and her lover just because. He completely shrugs off religion and calls it outdated and foolish. Even the knight himself, while struggling with his faith, believes that life is meaningless and devoid of any true happiness for him.

The film's focus on nihilism comes from the characters coming back from the brutal battles of the Crusades. This is probably the genesis of vietnam war films like Platoon. The characters are soldiers, haunted by what they've seen and driven to hopelessness by what they've seen.

The second major theme in the film, and the first one I noticed, is fear. This takes place in the time of the Black Plague, when the Catholic church used fear to draw in followers. This film clearly shows that fear can turn people cruel. The squire is a cruel hedonist who is plagued not only by the fear of what he's seen, but also the fear of death. He's driven to acts of cruelty such as almost raping a woman and encouraging murder. The townspeople are shown to be terrified by the black plague. In the very same scene they laugh and encourage the torture and mockery of one of the performers. The only characters who are devoid of fear are the only good people in the movie; the knight is a good man, the performers are happy and full of life and offer hospitality to the knight and squire.

The screenplay is, for the most part, pretty good. The dialogue between characters is well written and can even be funny. The squire in particular is given many funny lines and moments. The banter between the knight and the Grim Reaper as they attempt to outwit one another is entertaining and fun to listen to. Where the screenplay falls flat, however, is Bergman's failure to show and not tell. There's one monlogue at the very end in particular where one of the performers is describing something that the viewer could just have easily seen. While he's describing what he's seeing all I could think was, "Why aren't we being shown this ourselves?"

The film was shot in all black and white, making it difficult judge elements such as lighting and color. You are able to see everything in the frame, so that's good.

The acting is superb with a great lead performance from Max von Sydow, who is apparently Swedish. The other actors do phenomenally as well; the actors who play the traveling performers are a convincing husband and wife as they do care for and love one another, but not to the point where it's unrealistically sweet and perfect. The Grim Reaper, made iconic by Bengt Ekerot, is another fantastic performance. The way he holds himself in his posture and the way he speaks just oozes complete confidence and arrogance. He knows he has nothing to fear because he's Death. He always wins.

The sets are well made, in that they reflect the shoddy architecture of the Middle Ages and the landscapes of Sweden are beautiful to look at. It's also impressive that almost all the scenes that required a village set were filmed in one location, Filmstaden, Sweden. They were able to hide this fact by shooting at different angles to hide the forest and, most likely, filming in different parts of the village.

The camera work is fine. The cinematographer seemed to like putting the actors right in the middle of the frame, rather than obeying the rule of thirds.

The one significantly odd aspect of the production is the aspect ratio. It was filmed in 1.37:1 aspect ratio, meaning the film was framed in a small square box. This is strange because this was only being used for TV at the time; this ratio had gone unused in the film industry for almost 20 years prior. Though it doesn't hurt the film, it is interesting.

The music is, surprisingly, attention grabbing. The minute the movie starts and the music kicks on, it has your undivided attention. It doesn't pull any punches, it just starts immediately. Composer Erik Nordgren did a great job with the somber, yet epic, musical score.

Synopsis: The Seventh Seal is layered, complex, open to interpretation and freaking awesome! The film is superbly made, incredibly smart and thought provoking. I highly recommend you watch this as soon as possible.



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