About Grant

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New York, NY, United States
Film director and screenwriter. Cinephile since birth. Director of DREAMS OF THE WAYWARD (2013). Film Studies MA student at Columbia University.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Most Important Film You Will Ever Experience (Part 1: Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal")

 Before saying that a film is important, the term "important" must be defined.  Is it artistically brilliant as a film?  Is the film life affirming?  Is the film life changing?  Does the film live beyond its date of release?  Does the film capture a time or a place in society and history?  Does the film challenge the audience?  If it can fit into most of these categories, then it simply must be important.
 To quote the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, "The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good."  He also famously stated, “I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one called Bergman," which leads to our first important film:

Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957)

 Set during the beginning of the spread of the bubonic plague, it is difficult to imagine that a film set during a time of great fear and pain could be so life-rewarding.  Astonishingly, The Seventh Seal is a film comparable to the work of Shakespeare in that it is a well-rounded combination of comedy, romance, suspense, drama, and death.  
 Just on the surface level, The Seventh Seal is a marvelous comedy and a fantastic drama, but director/writer Ingmar Bergman never deals with subjects simply on the surface level... he penetrates the soul.  Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is returning from the crusades as a failure.  Leaving the violence of the crusades, he is greeted by the plague in his native Sweden and begins to question the existence of God.  
 Iconically, the film opens to a rocky Scandinavian beach where the Swedish crusader Antonius Block is visited by a hooded figure (Death personified) and is challenged to a game of chess.  Antonius makes a deal with Death stating that as long as they are playing the game, Antonius gets to live.  A few pieces are moved, and Antonius then leaves one-fourth through the game as he continues his quest back home with his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand).  The signs of the plague are everywhere as they pass dead peasants and emptied cities.
 Meanwhile, the jester-like performers Jof (Nils Poppe) and his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) are struggling to find audiences that want comedy during this dark time in history.  Jof awakes one morning and sees a vision of Mother Mary walking with the Christ-child which lifts his spirits, but when he tells his wife about what he saw, she does not believe him.  As the plague continues passing through Europe, by fate, Jof and Mia's paths cross with the traveling knight Antonius Block and his squire.  Antonius allows for Mia and Jof to accompany them to safety, but the devout Christian Jof can see that something dark troubles Antonius through their journey (unlike Mia or the squire).
 Each stop that they make, Antonius pulls out the chess board and Death reappears to continue their game.

 The Seventh Seal is a highly thought-provoking film that challenges audiences with the role of death in the lives of all.  The bubonic plague is simply a device for the story to help maintain the presence of death in the minds of the viewers while also depicting the inescapable nature of death - as it is something that every human will face.
 Filled with Biblical references, the film questions the role of God in the lives of humans as Antonius struggles to see that a God can live and be loving during such hard times.  Playing chess against Death may help the way that he feels about himself and the power that he has over his own life, but he is constantly aware that he truly has no power as the society around him collapses.  Antonius Block (and everyone else journeying alongside him) are simply pawns in God's game of chess.  Their fates (and ours) have all been pre-determined, and Death is just the messenger.

 The Seventh Seal is most comparable to the modern classic No Country For Old Men (2007) as Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) return from Vietnam with two very different experiences.  Llewelyn lives a simple life in Texas as a veteran, but Anton Chigurh (the "Death" character of the film) is playing with the lives and fates of others with his deep-penetrating eyes and coin-tossing ways.  When their paths cross, a suspenseful twist of fate is constantly in the minds of viewers and in the back of Llewelyn's mind as well.
 Much like Antonius Block, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is fearful of what society is doing around him. Though it is not the plague, the loss of morality and values disturbs the Sheriff in his small Texas town as he observes the wayward travels of Llewelyn as he hunts for the deranged veteran Chigurh who is constantly casting a shadow over the life of the innocent.
 Ironically, Chigurh is even compared to the bubonic plague in the film...

 Often parodied and referenced by other filmmakers (notably Woody Allen), The Seventh Seal is the film that made Ingmar Bergman a success and paved the way for the next four decades of filmmaking in his life.  Though most of his later films would not be as straight-forward with his motives, the role of Christianity for humans and the fate of the soul was a continuing theme that would run through all of his work.
 In a film about the human condition and the fate of the soul, The Seventh Seal is a film that connects to everyone and continues to impact viewers upon each viewing.  

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