There are many films that are considered masterpieces and for good reason. Some for their plot, some for their innovative film making techniques and some for their special effects. However, there are quite a few that can stand toe to toe with many of these masterpieces in some way or another and are often utterly obscure. And today I am going to talk about one of those obscure films. This is the Illusive One's Review of The Seventh Seal.
Released in 1957, the film was a Swedish production, directed by Ingmar Bergman and starred a very young Max von Sydow. While it's not incredibly obscure, it's not one that too many people talk about or even know about which is a shame. I myself hadn't even heard about it until Netflix recommended it. The plot revolves around the knight Antonius Block, (Sydow), as he is returning home from the crusades disillusioned and very world weary. On his way back he encounters Death and challenges him to a game of chess in order to postpone his own death and try to find some kind of meaning in life and explores the themes of faith, death and the meaning of life.
One the positive side you had a great story for starters. If you're like me, however, you might be disappointed that there is relatively little screen time of the knight and Death actually playing chess. Most of the film focuses on the knight, his squire Jons, and various people they encounter on the way to the knight's castle as the Black Death ravages Europe and the characters confront their own personal demons concerning faith, death, morality, and the meaning of life itself. While it wasn't what I expected, I cannot deny that it was one that was very well executed, full of tense and emotional moments and kept me interested from beginning to end.
Another thing this film really got right were the characters, as each was entertaining and memorable in their own way. For starters, you had Antonius the knight who was incredibly acted by Sydow and he really came off as believable as a world weary knight with a crisis of faith. The only problem I really had was that he seemed to be a tad thin for the part and this made him look a bit out of place. You also had the squire Jons, who was incredibly enjoyable as a hilarious cynic who laughed at the prospect of death, a serious man of his time and intimidating and badass all at once. In my personal opinion, his dialog was the best in the film being both enjoyable and serious with themes just as powerful as knight’s talks with death and other people. Even the characters that were relatively minor and forgettable were entertaining in some way. The black smith and his wife added an entertaining subplot and the way Jons worked off the blacksmith was just hilarious.
Along with these characters you had great dialog frequently dealing with issues of faith, life, death, love, and morality. There were also quite a few scenes in this film I really enjoyed such as the witch burning where the knight asks the witch if he can talk to the Devil, Jons’ conversations with the painter, the blacksmith, and the group eating strawberries together one afternoon.
The last really good thing I have to mention about this film was the general set design as they made an incredibly convincing medieval environment. Everything I saw on film, from the castles, to the inns, to the churches, to the food, to the food bowls I could honestly believe were from that era.
However, I would be lying if I said this film didn’t have flaws. For starters, the figure of Death was hit or miss throughout this film. At times he was really creepy and intimidating and at others he just seemed underwhelming and dull. The actor Jof was a good character but something seemed a bit off about his performance at times. Like it was written for him to have a certain reaction but fails to show it. Granted a lot of that has to do with the general directorial style but it still bothered me.
While on the subject, I couldn’t help but notice that the cinematography, editing and general directorial style was hit and miss throughout this film. The editing wasn't great, particularly during any violent scenes where said violence was cut out and some of it seemed a bit choppy. A lot of the shots seemed a bit static and a little to centered at times, and makes you aware that you're watching a movie. While many scenes in this film were great and full of tension, I couldn't help but feel that several could have been a lot better. Some scenes just didn't have the right lighting, and some didn't have the right camera movements. It was just a number of little things that added up and kept the film from having an artsy, physiological quality to it that films like Apocalypse Now! and Blade Runner have, despite the fact that it seemed like that was the mood the film was going for.
All around, I would recommend this film to anyone who has an interest in older films, isn't depressed, and can watch a film in a foreign language. The characters, acting and dialog were all good, even when they seemed a bit off, and made the film incredibly enjoyable. The general directorial style, however, keeps it short of classic and really shows the age of the film. It seemed like the makers were trying to go for an Exorcist type feel to it, where the viewer takes from the film what they brought, but the ultimate visual execution kept this from being possible. Once again, I would recommend this film but don't expect anything ground breaking and expect to have a lot more questions than answers by the film's end.
Until next time, this is the Illusive One wishing you all luck in your own game of chess with death.