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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Classics 1:Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal"

The Seventh Seal (1957) is one of the most celebrated films made by the legendary Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman.It deals with the pangs of existential angst while working on the template of the "Black Death" or the plague epidemic which wiped out one-third of Europe in the 14th century.There are several memorable scenes in the film, but none more than its famous opening scene where a battle-weary knight Antonius Block(played by Bergman favourite Max Von Sydow) plays chess with a ghostly pale, black-cloaked personification of Death.Block is white while Death, naturally, gets black, and smugly remarks," It becomes me." (SPOILER ALERT)

Throughout the film, this deadly game of chess continues, in which Death and Antonius try to outwit each other.At one point,Block confesses to a priest that he wants to believe in God, but cannot."Why must God be invisible,unspeaking? What hope is there for those who want to believe but cannot?And those who don't want to believe?" , Antonius laments. He also reveals his strategy for defeating Death to this priest, who reveals himself as Death(who else?). Meanwhile we also encounter a family troupe of actors who travel from one plague-infested village to another.Another interesting character is Block's squire, who is an atheist, and constantly appears as the cynical counterpoint to Block's spiritual concerns.

Throughout the film, I thought to myself , seeing the typically theatric proceedings, as also some macabre scenes(mutual flagellation, witch-burning and other references to medieval Europe are rampant),about how this could be adapted into an awesome play. It was only after watching the film that I found out that Bergman had made this film by adapting his own play "Wood Paintings" !

One can't help but notice that throughout the film, the mode and tone of storytelling is closer to literary fiction than to the language of cinema.Bergman himself considered the novel to be a superior art-form than the film,and in fact nursed literary ambitions. He had published a collection of some of his film screenplays but it was his life-long regret that he didn't write a novel of his own. Well, literature's loss is cinema's gain. Because "The Seventh Seal" is cinema at its most engaging, with impressive performances, a knock-'em-dead script and imaginative usage of both light and sound.

This was my third Bergman, and by far the most impressive. In the next few posts I'll talk about some more great movies like Akira Kurosawa's "Yojimbo" and Sidney Lumet's "12 Angry Men".

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