The ultimate hallmark of old films dates way back to 1957, past the likes of Vertigo and Lawrence of Arabia, and sits ahead in time of Citizen Kane and Seven Samurai. It is old, sometimes forgotten, but still impactful today. It is philosophical, provoking more questions than answers, but also a metaphor dedicated to the many problems standing today.
The Seventh Seal is a slice of life set in a 14th century Swedish village. A plague ravages under the cosh of the main events, intertwining two different storylines. Block, the centre of attention, is a disillusioned crusader who returns home from the Holy Land’s battlefield. On his way, Block meets Death, literally. A dilemma arises. Death is ready to claim Block’s life, when Block attempts to forestall his fate by challenging Death to a game of chess. The rules of chess remain the same. The consequence, severe. Should the knight win, Death would live him alone. Occasionally, I like to watch chess-masters go toe to toe in a quick succession of hang gestures and slapping that plastic chess clock. On successive days, the opponents move one chess piece at a time. Whilst all this is happening, the audience and the knight watch the villagers wallow in their impending doom in the context of their religious faith. That is the first storyline. Meanwhile, a husband and wife are passing through the village. Their out-of-context happiness is highly abnormal, considering the surrounding misery that encroaches. The couple meets the knight, and as a group, they travel to a castle. During this journey, the knight plays the final chess piece against Death, which sadly leads to his loss. Heroically, Block distracts Death to buy time for the couple to escape. The group escape and arrive at the castle, before meeting their fate at the hands of Death.
This dark masterpiece by director Ingmar Bergman looks satire in the eye and gives it the middle finger. It is a drastic measure to remind us of scripture, the works of Flaubert and Shakespeare resonate in unison to produce a powerful piece of jargon. Despite Barney Stinson’s adage of “New is always better”, The Seventh Seal is as relevant and fresh as the annual iOS updates. As the film approaches its end, religion is put on trial. Bergman interrogates the failures/shortcomings of religion. The questions are classic manoeuvres to denounce religion; meagre explanations for human sufferings, the strange significance of self-mortification, injudicious witch hunts in the name of religion, the hypocrisy of religious leaders, and the best one yet, literally any compelling evidence of God’s existence playing hide-and-seek with us. Checkmate. Bergman has created a philosophical masterpiece in its own right, which begs so many questions outside of this Swedish village.
We must make an idol of our fear, and call it god.
Perhaps the greatest line from the film, we have to ask ourselves why we are dependant on religion. After all, no baby is born religious. Religion is passed on to the child by most likely the family. Nature vs nurture stuff. This reflects a common view in the psychology of religion that belief in God is initially sparked by fear of the unknown. Is there any truth to this and, if so, does this undermine religion? Me, growing up in an atheist family, the only thing I ever feared was disappointing my scary mom. To say that religion stems from our fear of the unknown is only half of the equation. The other half is human desire for transcendence. A search for what is good and beautiful in conscious experience of existence. Stories about magical, all-powerful parental beings were the first analogies that had a powerful effect on the questioning, anxious minds of humans. Those stories would have made perfect sense to the people living before the advance of logic, and we are living in an era in which those childlike ideas still have a hold in millions of humans’ minds. The religions are with us because we want an explanation of our place in the universe, and we have limited intelligence. If our collective intellect has a chance to continue to increase over ages, this yearning for meaning will guide us to the final realization that consciousness of the physical universe is expressed by us, not characters in books of stories. Belief in what is good, right thought, compassionate action, and positive community are our legacy as conscious beings. They emanate from us. Though the origins may have been well-intentioned, God is only a story, at least according to me.
I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me.
But He remains silent.
I call out to Him in the darkness. But it’s as if no one was there.
Perhaps there isn’t anyone.
The Seventh Seal works as an integration of philosophy and film without boring its audiences. Apart from religion, there are several other topics discussed in the film, such as evil and existentialism. Block’s troubles with theistic belief is incredibly well orchestrated. God is omnibenevolent, to the extent that He somehow foregoes all the countless evils? Theistic belief and atheistic existentialism are both pawns in this tenet, made aware by the audience in an uncomfortable by necessary manner.
Pushing some bishop and rook pieces around, is more than just for the sake of flexing an intellectual mind. It is a metaphor, that much is obvious. It is human to try to rebel mortality’s gravity, doing so by heaps of mini victories, c’est-à-dire capturing the various chess pieces for points. In the domain of aesthetics, we evocatively feel the need to leave behind a memory of us, long after our deaths.
Max von Sydow
Speaking of memory, this film is a dedicated souvenir from Max Von Sydow (Block), who passed early this year unfortunately. A true titan of film, he appeared in more than 100 films over the last seven decades, in memorable films such as The Exorcist, Flash Gordon, and Pelle The Conqueror. You will be missed.