28 January 2010
Maybe They Should Have Played Checkers Instead - or - Why I Revere Bergman's The Seventh Seal
"Faith is a torment. It is like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call." - Antonius Block.
The absence of God.
Who on Earth would want to watch a film dealing with such deep and dour topics? If said film is Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), count me in.
It's not an easy film for me to watch because I find myself thinking all the damn time. Because Bergman so effectively introduces the weightiest of all themes throughout the film, one is constantly stopping to contemplate them.
Yesterday Howard Zinn died. Today JD Salinger. Life goes on for the rest of us. For now. But whether its in the form of some pale faced bloke in a flowing black cloak or something rather less obvious, death follows us all. All the time. Goodness, have you any notion of how capricious life is? It's something to think about because it may inspire you to appreciate each day. Hell, each hour. Antonius Block (Max Van Sydow) does late in the film. In a break from playing chess with death, he enjoys a simple but tasty repast of strawberries and milk with friends. Antonius, a knight just returned from the Crusades, vows to remember these precious moments.
One thing recovering addicts learn is how great it is to be alive to face life on life's terms. Meaning, it's great to be alive, for the good, the bad, the horrible, the wonderful. So death is the absence of that. Unless it's not and something else awaits. But The Seventh Seal does not deal with the after life. Just the termination of this one.
The Seventh Seal is set in the time of Black Death when plague claimed the lives of perhaps one-third of all Europeans. Understandably, people were obsessed with death. It was omnipresent. Try not thinking about.
People looked for answers and inevitably for scapegoats. As we see in the film one young woman is blamed for bringing the plague because she supposedly had carnal knowledge of the devil. In desperation for answers to the seemingly unknowable, people will grasp at straws and end up clutching one. During the plague, in many parts of Europe, Jews were blamed (as a Jewish friend of mine said with a sigh when I mentioned this once, "of course."). If you don't know who or what's to blame, pick someone, anyone.
The Seventh Seal was based in large part on the iconography of the church of Bergman's childhood, where his father was a preacher. Tis no surprise that it is a visually lush film in dramatic and beautiful black and white.
There is symbolism aplenty and much profundity and Bergman had the confidence to lay it on quite thick. Great directors like him and Fellini are not afraid, nothing is held back. Modern movies are too often a case of, as the old song goes, "the self deception that believes the lie." Many great directors when finding something to say, say it. Loudly.
Bergman doesn't hint at the specter of death. He puts a guy in black cloak and calls him that. In the first scene.
Antonius challenges Death to a game of chess (is life, after all, a game? I dunno, you tell me). If he wins he lives -- yeah, but for how long? In any case he's just "playing for time." Death must win. Eventually.
The knight and his squire travel to their home, a castle, literally, they've not seen for ten years. They encounter and travel with others, including a couple. Their names? Mary and Joseph and yes they have a baby. Make of it what you will. That's part of the beauty of The Seventh Seal. You decide. So many choices. So much to think about. Just as in life.
If it all sounds rather bleak, well it's not. It's exhilarating is what. Great art always is. It explores ideas and thus allows you to do the same. So the topic is death. Hey, you wanna appreciate life, you wanna understand "it all" you gotta face the end of "it all." You've got to know it's there. The Seventh Seal is a good place to start.
Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one's senses? Why does he hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles? How can we believe in the faithful when we lack faith? What will happen to us who want to believe, but can not? What about those who neither want to nor can believe? Why can't I kill God in me? Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way - despite my wanting to evict Him from my heart? Why is He, despite all, a mocking reality I can't be rid of? - Antonius Block.