A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

Back in the day, by which I mean the early 1960s, The Seventh Seal was one of the films -- along with Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950) and La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960) -- that you had to have seen just to be considered culturally literate. Its stock has fallen considerably since then, thanks to a distaste for Ingmar Bergman's inquiries into faith. I hadn't seen it for many years until I decided to watch it last night, and I was expecting my reaction to be similar to the one I had recently watching Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly (1961): too much talking, not enough showing. I had, in fact, remembered very little from The Seventh Seal beyond the knight playing chess with death and the final dance of death across the horizon -- both of which have been parodied and copied ever since. And it is, still, much too talky: Epigrams about God and Death pile up on one another tiresomely.  But I had forgotten how human a fable it is. I think it succeeds where Through a Glass Darkly fails, partly because of setting: The glum isolation of the island in the later film puts all our concentration on the actors and the torment their characters inflict on one another. If Through a Glass Darkly is intended to raise questions about faith, about human beings' relationship to a god, it misses the mark. The world the characters of the film inhabit is not a world energized by faith, so their preoccupation with it seems pointless. But the setting of The Seventh Seal is an age of faith -- perhaps the last one our civilization will ever know -- which adds an urgency to the characters' wrangling with it. It became obvious to me on this viewing that the key character is not the knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), but his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), the sardonic commentator on the events. Jöns is our surrogate, the skeptic with a decidedly modern view of his era's religious extremism, such as the Crusade he and the knight have just been on. What we're witnessing is the merciful escape from a god that for some reason Bergman's modern characters keep hunting: the god of certainty -- the kind of certainty that breeds fanaticism and bigotry. In the end, Bergman's knight sacrifices himself to Death (Bengt Ekerot) so that ordinary people -- the players Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson) and their child -- may live to continue their secular amusements that had earlier been interrupted by fanatics and flagellants. Commentators have sometimes likened the plague that threatens the world of The Seventh Seal to the threat of nuclear annihilation, but I think that misses the point: For the medieval world, the Plague was a test of faith; for the modern world, the Bomb is a test of humanity.  .

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