I met Death today. We are playing chess.
Antonius Block returns from the Crusades and jumps out of the fighting and into the black plague as the flesh-rotting disease hitches a ride all over the beautiful Swedish countryside. On a rocky beach looking out over the water, a cloaked man approaches, introduces himself as Death, and Block challenges him to a game of chess on the condition that a victory will secure his life.
Visionary director Ingmar Bergman was the embodiment of the artist’s artist. As a filmmaker, he is respected beyond words by others in the business, but if you ask the average movie fan on the street, they may know the name but not much else. During his life, his movies were never huge financial successes, and he was noted as saying later in life that he couldn’t even see his own films anymore because they were too depressing.
In celebration of the birthday of a director obsessed with death, it seems fitting to take on the film where his main character plays an overtly symbolic game against a pale figure who looks like the obvious inspiration for Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey and Voldemort.
Max Von Sydow’s Antonius Block is a jaded fighter who has lost faith in his superiors, his country, and the God that they were supposedly winning the great religious war for. His squire Jons (played with brutish intensity and humor by Gunnar Bjornstrand) shares that vision. Both actors are incredible here. Block is contemplative and questioning, but he doesn’t have the same woe-is-me meekness that you’d find in modern day heroes who lose faith. Jons is a forerunner for the modern action star, quipping one-liners and looking ready to kill. They are both near nihilism, but when Jons comes upon a man raping a woman in a barn, he stares him down like a master punishing a dog without striking it, and then calmly remarks, “You look uneasy. Do you have a stomach ache?” before verbally displaying his dominance over the retch.
On the other side of the story is a traveling troupe of actors. Despite a relatively scant life on the road, they are full of sunshine and joy. Jof (Nils Poppe) is a juggler who sees a vision of the Madonna, his beautiful wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) has recently given birth to their first child and is starry-eyed at the prospect of living life with the man she loves, and Skat (Erik Strandmark), their manager, is gruff but harmless. They have gotten more and more bookings for the Church, performing Passion Plays meant to frighten viewers into realizing that the Plague is the fault of sinful ways.
So why should you seek out a black and white, foreign film that’s 53 years old and deals with questions of life, death and faith?
If there’s only one reason, it’s as a tonic. The film proves that the very type of movie that popped into your mind with all those buzz words doesn’t have to be the film that ends up on screen. Bergman’s work here is consistently engaging and manages to discuss universal issue in a way that’s not at all alienating. He doesn’t pretend these issues are some unique questions for the University-bound or the “artistic” – they are things that everyone thinks about and puzzles over. Even in the setting of Medieval Sweden, the messages resonate with modern clarity. Bergman uses the time period as symbolism – a Plague as a struggle, a middle point between faith and science, a man who has lost what he once held dear. There’s no pretension here, and that’s a welcome change from other films (even newer ones) that seem to think saying things slowly and staring off into the distance is substitute enough for truly deep thinking.
A film that challenges doesn’t necessarily have to be out of reach to be important. The Seventh Seal proves this and does it with indelible visual style. Bergman worked with cinematographer Gunnar Fischer several times, and here they create sweeping shots that enhance discussions of the land, claustrophobic images that tighten around the viewer during threatening moments, and an unforgettable shot of Block and Death sitting on the seaside playing chess (an image that should look strangely familiar to “Lost” fans).
The Seventh Seal was never nominated for Academy Awards the way some of Bergman’s later films would be, but it’s a powerhouse film that feels like a Western infused with the energy of a bombastic sermon from the pulpit. Those lonesome riders may be Swedish knights, the sermon might call God into question, but the film itself is a fascinating, beautifully acted portrait of how we might view life and how we might postpone the inevitable.
Silence. Nothingness. Checkmate.
Take a trip back in time with even more Old Ass Movies.