#310. The Seventh Seal (1957)

Even though I’m inclined to agree with Quentin Tarantino at this point when he says that, compared to other decades in cinema, the 1950s isn’t really when things were fantastic, I’m finding myself consistently intimidated to write about these titles that’re coming up one after another. They’re all so iconic. Rebel Without a Cause, The Ten Commandments, The Searchers, Giant—and those are just the big American blockbusters. They’re all perfectly accessible and viewer-friendly. They were being churned out in hopes of creating a sweeping, loud, vast cinematic experience that might compete with the allures of television.

            This is basically the legacy of postwar American cinema: it was more expensive than ever, and everybody was paranoid.

            World cinema, however, was much harder to pin down and summarize in these postwar years. Censorship was loosening, as we saw with both the nudity and ending of Bob le Flambeur; The Burmese Harp showed us a Japanese filmmaker meditating on peace, death, defeat. Pather Panchali showed the beauty and redemption of childhood, of family, even in the shroud of abject poverty. Vittorio de Sica explored similarly heavy shit with the glorious Bicycle Thief and the less-remarkable but still-powerful Umberto D.

            And now we’ve got Ingmar Bergman with one of the most iconic and thematically heavy movies of the century.

            I think a movie like The Seventh Seal could only have sprung from a part of the world that was still palpably vibrating with the aftermath of war (something Bergman would go on to explore more pointedly and viscerally in the 1960s with Shame). Seventh Seal is famous for its images/premise of a knight playing chess with death while a plague kills legions around them. The story does buckle down into character drama, following a family on the move, an acting troupe, and we see how they engage with one another and how they respond to their circumstances, how they’re mocked. We also see how they love each other, we get a sense of what their happiness is.

We get to know them well enough.

            But it isn’t quite the character study that Bergman goes on to master with his next few movies. The scope and themes of Seventh Seal are a bit broader than what he’ll go on to examine. The movie’s as much about ideas than character.

            And that’s why I think it’s more “postwar” than either Smiles of a Summer Night or Summer with Monika, both of which came from the same period. The story, in Seventh Seal, encompasses a mass of people, a historical moment other than that in which it was released and, accordingly, a more pointedly metaphorical one.

            What feels unfair about this appraisal, and what probably makes it useless to any reader who’s perhaps coming along with me through the List chronologically and therefore hasn’t seen any of the director’s later work, is that, rather than looking at and appraising The Seventh Seal on its own, I’ve had such a heavy response to so much of Bergman’s later work at this point that I can’t help but look at Seventh Seal within the context of its successors, and to see it, therefore, as one of the stranger episodes in its author’s oeuvre. I think Seventh Seal is a masterpiece and I enjoyed it but I do kind of resent the way that it overshadows a lot of Bergman’s more poignant work simply on account of its high concept. Following the knight through a series of very episodic encounters, each one bearing the heft of a storybook metaphor, makes for a great series of lilipads across which Bergman might hop to explore his themes, but it isn’t the sort of sustained storytelling I prefer. It makes for the same vibe I get from film anthologies: with the completion of every episode, if it was satisfying, I can’t help but look at my watch, wondering how much time is left; especially if I know that a certain number of stories remain to be told, in which case I’m wondering if they’ll be able to really pack a punch with only so much allotted time, and suddenly I’m thinking less about the story on screen than I am about how the filmmaker’s gonna wrap it up.

            This is a beautiful and brilliant movie that’s been somehow diminished for me between the time I saw it and now.

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