Great Films: Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”

Posted on 10th December 2003 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

The Seventh Seal

Antonius Block has returned from 10 years in Crusades to the shores of Sweden, a country being ravaged by the plague. There, on the beach, he meets Death, and knows that it is his time. Antonius challenges Death to a chess match, if he wins, Death must let him go free. Death agrees and chooses one of Antonius’ fists, which opens to reveal a black piece.

“It becomes me well,” Death says with a smile.

So begins a philosophical journey, a quest for “certainty.” Antonius is buying himself time through the chess game, a chance to find evidence of something beyond life and death, concrete evidence. We know Antonius’ faith is shaken, and we suspect his experiences in the Crusades are the cause. As his Squire, Jons, explains at one point, the Crusades were “so stupid that only an idealist could have thought it out.”

The film is rich with witty and poetic dialogue. Consider this passage, when Jons returns to Antonius after seeking directions from a man resting against a rock, only to discover a rotting corpse slouched there:

Antonius: Did he show you the way?

Jons: Not exactly.

Antonius: What did he say?

Jons: Nothing.

Antonius: Was he mute?

Jons: No milord. He was most eloquent.

Antonius: Indeed.

Jons: But very gloomy.

Antonius’ solemn seriousness is contrasted by Joseph, a free-spirited performer who sees spiritual visions, which he tells to his wife, Mary. His visions are an odd thing, and help to illustrate the conundrum that frustrates Antonius so. Joseph’s visions are partly real and partly his imagination.

Even if partly real, what is their nature? Belief is something deeply personal. No matter how your neighbor’s experiences influenced their faith, they are not your experiences. Antonius expresses the difficulty of “believing the believers.” There is also the issue of believing one’s own beliefs.

Is faith merely a warm blanket some pull over themselves to avoid thinking about the grim finality we all must face alone? Even a young girl accused of having carnal knowledge of the Devil finds comfort in believing it. The preacher and soldiers all saw the Devil with her, so she believes them, hoping the Devil will protect her from the flames. Antonius looks into her eyes, however, and finds only terror.

The film is such a strange and wonderful mixture of heavy philosophy and comedy, each side of this dualism equally effective. Director Ingmar Bergman’s incarnation of Death is a cordial and sympathetic character who also has a sense of humor. The character has appeared in numerous other films, such as “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.” In fact, many of the films images have appeared elsewhere, as the final scene, which was lovingly emulated in “Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.”

This contrast between heavy and light illustrates the only answerable question the film presents us. How should we spend our lifetimes? Should we consume our time on Earth buried in concerns about the afterlife, as the flagellates, ceaselessly beating themselves in an attempt to evoke God’s mercy? Or should we emulate Joseph, and enjoy the time we have in love and song and merrymaking? Keeping in mind the ultimately unknowable nature of what comes after this world, it would seem the answer is obvious.

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