Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

The Seventh Seal is poetic, existential, grim, somber, witty, and on the whole a medieval treatment of an eternally relevant curiosity of human race - the existence of god and the inevitability of death. It draws up a desirous balance of solemn and the carefree, the harsh and the satirical. A medieval knight named Antonius Block and his squire Jöns have just returned from ten wasted years in the Crusades to a Sweden in the throes of the black plague. Block is the most philosophical, perceptive, and inquisitive character who is never tired of seeking answer to an ever-contemporaneous inquiry into the existence of god. Jöns is verging on the cynical side of the inquiry, maintains an expression of scornful derision toward Block, and most prominently a strict enforcer of civil rules. 
We also meet a simple actor named Jof who holds a simple vision of life and a believer in the god, his wife Mia radiating eternal love and affection, and their infant son Mikael, a metaphoric object of future and hope. Vacillating between his inability to believe and his dissatisfaction with unbelief, Block fulminates against God’s frustrating elusiveness on the one hand and the God-shaped hole in his own heart on the other. "Why must he always hide behind unseen miracles and vague promises and hints about eternity?" Block complains. Yet he also asks, "Why can’t I kill God within me? Why does he live on inside me, mocking and tormenting me till I have no rest, even though I curse him and try to tear him from my heart? Why, in spite of everything else, does he remain a reality — a maddening reality I cannot get rid of?Besides struggling with doubts about God’s existence, Block also resists death in the hope of performing a single meaningful act before dying. He challenges Death, the grim reaper, in a game of chess only to temporize his search for god. The reprieve is granted by Death who intermittently engages in his usual pitiless acts to remind us the inevitability of him. Block does get an opportunity to perform his meaningful act before the film ends — even in a way cheating Death — ultimately this gives him no consolation or peace. Instead, his only respite from his existential dread occurs, notably, during an encounter with the playful couple, Jof and Mia, in which Block briefly shares in their peaceful existence, enjoying a simple meal of wild strawberries and milk. In final, Block and his company with the exception of Jof, Mia, and Mikael accept lurking Death in a moment of submission. In The Seventh Seal, Bergman scrutinizes life and death as a philosophical problem rather than living it as a man. He portrays agnosticism and existential angst with recognized expressions of excitements, but allows religious allegiance to appear only in archaic and repulsive forms. Throughout the film, each encounter with Death gives way to an earthy humorous episode reminding us the endless proceedings of a mundane life. Like Block, Bergman never attempts to enter into Jof and Mia’s uncomplicated way of life, yet still somehow seems to draw comfort from it. By the film’s end it’s clear that although the director has no wish to be like Jof and Mia, he nevertheless values their way of life and doesn’t wish to see them deprived of it. Bergman expresses his impression of Death in the following:
"I was afraid of this enormous emptiness, but my personal view is that when we die, we die, and we go from a state of something to a state of absolute nothingness; and I don’t believe for a second that there’s anything above or beyond or anything like that; and this makes me enormously secure."

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