11.26.2011

Reassessing "The Seventh Seal"



I first saw The Seventh Seal (1957) at the ideal moment in my life as a film watcher.  I was about fourteen and was just discovering some of the great figures in world cinema: Fellini, Kurosawa, Truffaut, Bergman.  I had already seen Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1973) and was hypnotized by its eerie, dreamlike imagery.  But The Seventh Seal, of course, is a very different Bergman from that of the chamber dramas; it hearkens back to earlier dramatic forms and styles such as the allegory or the medieval cycle play, just as Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) evokes Mozart and French farce.  As masterful as these earlier films are (one would be a fool to try and claim that The Seventh Seal is a bad film) I understand John Simon when he writes that he can admire them but can’t love them.  The Seventh Seal may very well be a perfect film, one that moves gracefully from low comedy to tender lyricism to blackness to angst and even sublimity, that doesn’t waste a single moment; it is also a crucial film in the history of Bergman’s career and in the history of international art cinema.  But it is a film to admire rather than love.

It’s easy to pick out Bergman’s tell-tale themes and characters here: the existentialist quester, the cynical opportunists, the holy fool, the use of acting and theatrical performance to blunt the edge of reality.  We aren’t able to get very close to these characters, though, because Bergman’s narrative and visual models here are medieval ones: woodcuts and religious icons, allegorical poems and pageants.  The Seventh Seal is not informed by psychological realism in the way that Bergman’s later films are.  Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, Persona—these are profoundly interior works, claustrophobic, intimate, modernist.  The Seventh Seal is much less anxious; it hails from a literary and cultural tradition that ultimately makes peace with the world and its elements, all of which have their place in the heavenly cycle.  This is not to say that The Seventh Seal is a simple or unintelligent work, but merely that it takes place in a different cinematic universe from the anguished, incestuous, private groupings of the chamber films.

Still, I find the pleasures of the chamber dramas to be deeper, more probing, more endlessly surprising, and more nuanced.  Is The Seventh Seal Bergman’s best-known work because (along with Fanny and Alexander, perhaps) it’s his most accessible?  It doesn’t engage us in the heady mind games of Persona, the bleakness of Through a Glass Darkly, the elaborate death rites of Cries and Whispers.  It ends with a kind of yin-yang image: Death leading his troupe into the dark shadow of a low-hanging cloud, the holy couple pointing their wagon toward the rising sun, the dance of death balanced against the dawn of a new day.  A perfect ending, perhaps—even if it isn’t the fullest illustration of Bergman’s genius.  Original rating: ****  New rating: ****         

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