Mon, 30 March 2020
From Kim Newman, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die:
"The image of a black-robed, white-faced Death (Bengt Ekerot) playing chess on the beach with a weary, questioning crusader (Max von Sydow) is as ingrained in the memory of moviegoers as King atop the Empire State Building, Humphrey Bogart spurning Ingrid Bergman at the airport, Janet Leigh stabbed in the shower, or the Imperial Cruiser passing over the camera. This one scene from Swedish arthouse gem The Seventh Seal epitomizes the momentousness, excitement, and impact new types of cinema had at a point when Hollywood certainties were in recession. How else to explain the parodies or references in films as varied as Roger Corman's Masque of the Red Death (1964), Woody Allen's Love and Death, John McTiernan's Last Action Hero (1993), and Peter Hewitt's Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991), in the last of which Death plays Twister?
"But it's a shame this scene has come to represent the whole of the film in popular imagination. There's an unfair sense that writer-director Ingmar Bergman was being overly solemn, making something that could stand as an archetype of seriousness or artiness. Actually, The Seventh Seal, although rooted in the big themes of Bergman's great period, is a very playful, frequently comic picture: a medieval fable influenced by his enthusiasm for the samurai movies of Akira Kurusawa and as concerned with celebrating simple pleasures as indicting complicated torments.
"Antonius Block (Sydow), returning after ten years on a bloody crusade that was started by a con man who now makes a living robbing corpses, feels that his faith in God is a disease that mankind should root out. With his squire (Gunnar Bjornstrand), as much a debating partner as sidekick, Block encounters death in the form of a plague-ridden corpse before he meets the literal Grim Reaper. The game of chess played throughout the film between Death and the knight is not merely for the crusader's life but for his feelings about God, religion, and humanity. In the end, hope comes from an alternative Holy Family - a jolly juggler (Nils Poppe), his earthly sensual wife (Gunnel Lindblom), and their lively, innocent toddler - whom Block saves from the plague by willingly joining the dance of death that claims more venal, corrupted characters.
"The knight, constantly tormented by curiosities about God and the void (he even visits an accused witch about to burned to ask her what the Devil knows about God), represents one side of Bergman. The simple showman gently upbraided by his practical wife ("You and your dreams and visions," she says in the film's closing line) represents another seeking redemption through honest entertainment and appalled when his innocent show is upstaged by the horrible, Church-approved spectacle of a crowd of penitents being lashed and tortured. Bergman is angry and saddened by human evils, especially when sanctioned by supposed religion, but the film also celebrates physical and spiritual love, communal artistic expression, food and drink, and natural beauty."
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