Review: ‘The Seventh Seal’ (the silence of God)

A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?

Ten years fighting in the Crusades as a knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) returns to a plague-ravaged Sweden with his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand). On the beach by the sea and cloaked in black, Death (Bengt Ekerot) comes to claim Antonius, but the disillusioned knight challenges the Grim Reaper to a game of chess. Holding onto life as long as the game can continue, Antonius seeks to accomplish one meaningful deed during his reprieve, a goal he believes he has yet to achieve in his lifetime. Because he cannot understand the role of God in all the world’s suffering, Antonius seeks an audience — even with the Devil himself — to have the Lord’s answer.

Writer and director Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film is widely considered a cinema classic and essential viewing as “one of the greatest movies of all time.” Less focused upon the realism of the setting — many included encounters were anachronistic for the time period in question — the film unfolds like a fable, intentionally shot in black-and-white yielding a timeless feel. Contrasting many viewpoints on the meaning of life and those who live it — Monty Python critique not withstanding — the film draws viewers in as the entourage grows, character by character, culminating in a dinner at the knight’s castle. The outcome is never in doubt, but was anything truly learned along their journey?

The Seventh Seal begins and effectively ends with Revelation 8:1 from the Bible: “And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” The knight questions the silence of God and service unto Him; what happens to those who cannot believe? It’s interesting Antonius wants to know what’s true instead of keeping his faith — this is the same way John Constantine got into trouble — and the Angel of Death has no answer to his questions because there are no answers to give. While encouraging Antonius to finish their game, Death is gracious, even encouraging toward the knight, but it never occurs to Antonius that holding a conversation with Death is as close as anyone gets to proof of what is or what comes next: “I have no secrets.” From Meet Joe Black to Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, this is the personification all other cinematic reapers are measured against.

Upon their first meeting, Death tells Antonius he’s “been with him for a while,” to which the knight replies “I know.” Yet time and again throughout the film, Death surprises Antonius that he’s lurking nearby — even tricking him into giving away a chess strategy — often allowing people to think they can get one up on him… because of course they can’t. Squire Jöns has no faith, certain that God is the invention of man and an excuse to act out, confessing it a painter depicting religious iconography in a church. Other character archetypes exist among those Antonius collects upon his journey, all of which are doomed to his own fate when Death comes to collect. It isn’t until Antonius repays a kindness by ending his game with Death that he seizes the moment he’s been after, even though he appeals to a higher power in the end (who of course does not intercede).

Even after dictating his own terms, Antonius nonetheless suffers the stages of grief over his certain fate. The contrast between those celebrating life (the actors) and those enduring it (the flagellants) is stark, yet those choices are shown to be one’s own without passing judgment, as inevitable as Death making his rounds after a spent lifetime. Until such time, remember: “You may be a king or a little street sweeper, but sooner or later, you dance with the reaper!”

The Seventh Seal is not rated for voicing doubts about God, hiding from the flagellant parade, and trying to cheat Death… especially that last one, good sir.

Four skull recommendation out of four

Speak up, Mortal -- and beware of Spoilers!

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