Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Cult Movie Project: #1 (of 200) :: Vad Bedrar Dessa Dödliga Vara :: Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957)

Ignorance is bliss. And fate sucks. That is what I came away with after finally seeing Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, his most well known film -- mostly for the indelible image of a knight playing chess with Death (the Grim Reaper) for mortality stakes.

This knight in question, Antonious (Von Sydow), currently suffering a terminal crisis of faith, and his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Bjornstand), an irascible scoundrel (whom I adore), have just returned from the Middle East after barely surviving the latest Crusade only to find their homeland overrun by the Plague. This Black Death (personified by Ekerot) seems inevitable (and relentless), then, for all they encounter on the way home; the chess game a mere stay while the knight seeks and begs for some proof of God's existence so he knows there will be something on the Other Side when he dies.

As this floating game of strategy continues, they pick up some stray travelers -- a couple of roving performers and their baby, a blacksmith and his philandering wife, and a rescued waif. In the end, the errant knight and most of his troupe meet their end with no real answer to his big question. (There is some hint of Divine Intervention when the knight's wife, who openly prays, is spared when Death comes for them at the castle keep.) However, along the way, the knight manages to distract his opponent long enough for the purely innocent (and one could argue, most ignorant,) to escape the Plague and live happily ever after.

Some striking visuals, eerie locations, and strong characterizations help move this morality play along. Morbid, and beautiful, beautifully morbid, the procession of the penitent is just incredible, and the burning of the witch interlude is just mesmerizing and heart-wrenching. Bergman is the first name that probably pops into mind when one brings up arty-farty foreign flicks. But don't let the stigma (or the subtitles) scare you away. The two I've seen (this and The Virgin Spring) are like a beautifully illustrated fairy tale. Deceptively simple, but moving on a ton of levels, meaning my initial (face value) observation is just barely scratching the surface; and I encourage you all to dig in for yourselves.

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"It is the director's way of showing that man's confusion about God throughout history has caused him to commit great sins against man in God's name. [It] is a pessimistic film by a frustrated modern man, who realizes that since we will never have absolute knowledge about the existence or nonexistence of God, life can only be satisfying and safe for those simple people who have faith, no questions asked."

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The Fine Print: The Seventh Seal was watched via Hulu as part of their Criterion collection package. Watched as a double-feature with Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940). What's the Cult Movie Project? One down, 199 to go. 

The Seventh Seal (1957) Svensk Filmindustri :: Janus Films / P: Allan Ekelund / D: Ingmar Bergman / W: Ingmar Bergman / C: Gunnar Fischer / E: Lennart Wallén / M: Erik Nordgren / S: Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Nils Poppe, Bibi Andersson

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