Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Art House in the Middle of the Street #2: The Seventh Seal

There's no grand philosophical project behind Charge Shot!!!'s new feature. Jordasch's mom got him Janus Films' absolutely untouchable Essential Art House box set, and he's going to watch the whole thing. It's a behemoth set, collecting 50 films released since 1956 by one of the first distributors to bring honest-to-goodness world cinema to U.S. shores. The films contained in the collection serve as a crash course in world cinema, encompassing everything from major works of the French New Wave and the Italian Neorealist period to films from lesser-known corners of the filmmaking world, including Brazil and Poland. The collection is 50 discs, weighs 16 pounds, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses. Hit it.

One of the biggest pitfalls of taking on a project like this is how well-tread some of the ground is. Last week's entry covered a little-seen Polish film by a director who isn't Roman Polanski, so I had some more room to stretch. Nobody's going to fault me for seeming trite in my discussion of a film that practically no one has seen.

That is far from the case with Ingmar Bergman's canonical 1957 film The Seventh Seal. So much ink has been spilled picking apart the metaphorical import of the film's images: the knight's chess game with Death; Death leading his charges in the danse macabre at the end of the film; the knight's confession in the country church. Some of these images are so indelible, in fact, that they've been parodied in films and TV shows mostly watched by people who've never heard of Ingmar Bergman. So what to do, other than continue to flog an already battered dead horse?

The Seventh Seal follows a knight named Antonius Block (the always-grand Max von Sydow) who's just returned from the Crusades on his trip back to his castle in (can't be banal if I don't recap the plot first). It's the middle ages, though, so it's out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire: the idyllic Swedish countryside has been ravaged by the Black Plague. The hapless common-folk cope either by drinking themselves stupid or wallowing in their own soupy self-pity. Said soup is apparently fairly enticing, however.

The ranks of the flagellants grow as the bodies pile up, until practically everyone who's not dead is parading about, wailing and writhing in agony. Monks in robes drag immense wooden crosses through the towns as a line of pathetic-looking wastrels whip them. An intensely serious preacher-type leads the whole sordid cavalcade.

It sounds grim, and it is. But it's also sort of pathetically funny. Think about it: you're one of those fortunate enough to not have already been killed by the plague, so you spend the balance of your life whipping yourself in the hope that God will have mercy on you? You're practically already, well, dead.

Antonius and his steely-eyed squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) aren't convinced. They've stared death in the face (literally), and they're not buying the histrionics. Antonius, after all, is in a climactic struggle with Death for his mortal soul, so he's understandably intolerant of pretenders.

Travelling actors Mary and Joseph (Bibi Andersson and Nils Poppe) aren't interested in the spectacle, but neither are they particularly concerned with death in general. They lead a storybook life of song and dance; they sleep late, they wear silly Swedish pantaloons, they care for their cherubic baby (somehow not named Jesus).

Nominally, the film follows this sorta fellowship on their trip to Antonius' castle, where he claims they'll be safe from the plague (vintage medieval logic). But there's not really much of a plot, per se. The meat of the movie lies in a series of weighty conversations about death and faith between the film's characters. Whether or not you enjoy the movie hinges principally on whether you enjoy said exchanges. I liked them, so I ended up liking the movie.

It's not a film for everyone, though. And I don't mean that your dad will hate it, though he will. Even as a film snob with his nose pointed perennially skyward, I found parts of this hard to swallow. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this film is really goddamn Swedish. The travelling performers are meant to epitomize sweet naiveté, I realize, but I just couldn't handle their lute-playing and silly songs. Color me boorish.

There's some great stuff here, for sure. The conversations about death are full of startling, rich insights about mortality and God ("Faith is a torment – did you know that? It is like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call"). And the juxtaposition of the aforementioned flagellation with the (ridiculous) songs Mary and Joseph sing about death imply that theatricality may be a potent way of coping with the reality of death, as the film itself demonstrates. And the images. Oh, those images. This is a really pretty film.

But this is not subtle filmmaking. Bergman wanted to make a movie about characters grappling with death, so he made a movie about characters literally arguing about it. Proceed accordingly.

- Photos via Cinema Viewfinder and By Brett Johnson