The Seventh Seal (1957)

The Seventh Seal (1957)

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I don’t fancy the odds of the guy on the right.

Twitter Plot Summary: A knight challenges Death to a game of chess and questions life, the universe and everything as he does so.

Five Point Summary:

1. Chess against Death? I doubt his odds.
2. A merry band of players. And a baby’s bottom.
3. Never discuss chess tactics with a priest.
4. He should never have climbed that tree.
5. A merry dance? Oh my.

Most people will likely only recognise The Seventh Seal on one of two, possibly three grounds. The first would be Death emerging from the screen in Last Action Hero and imparts wise words (he is played by Ian McKellen after all); the second would be Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, whereby the teen rockers challenge Death to a multitude of games and he proves to be a sore loser. Then there’s the final act of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, where Death intrudes on a well spoken dinner party which has some slightly less than appetising salmon mousse. The chess game in particular is the central conceit to The Seventh Seal, where an errant knight encounters Death and challenges him to a game of chess, the winner taking the knight’s life.

A young Max von Sydow plays the knight, Antonius Block, a man who questions the existence of God and his place in the world. This is set against a backdrop of the Black Death, a time of great religious strife and deference. As people drop dead from the plague left, right and centre, the knight and Death play their merry game of chess. Perhaps the outcome is never in question – death is immutable after all – yet questions are raised regarding the human spirit, the validity of faith and what it means to be alive. Symbolism abounds from start to finish – the young baby boy of actors Jof and Mia, Death given physical form, and of course that iconic game of chess.

The game of chess is not the only focus though. As it turns out, that iconic meeting of minds is a mere background thread. On their journey across the plague-ridden lands the knight and his squire – a man who wouldn’t be out of place stood alongside The Big Lebowski’s nihilists – encounter several people who enlighten their journey. There are the aforementioned family of Jof, Mia and their son, a servant girl who is saved by squire Jons from being raped by the man who made Block go off on the crusades in the first place, and the blacksmith and his wife.

Pawn to King four... pawn to king four...
Pawn to King four… pawn to king four…

On reading about the film further after my viewing, one of the evident themes is that of the silence of God, described in the Book of Revelation and where the film gets its title. Throughout all of the pain and suffering experienced by the knight and those he encounters, death is a consistent presence and the merciful God is nowhere to be found. Funny that. On the subject of amusements, it might be heavy on allegory but that doesn’t mean there isn’t ample opportunity for humour. This is provided distinctly by the blacksmith, his wife and Skat, an actor/tour manager type who runs away with the blacksmith’s wife until she grows weary of him – what follows is a genuinely funny conversation whereby the wife’s methods of worming her way back into the blacksmith’s good books are laid out for all to see.

It’s existential, relatively verbose and likely nonsensical to the vast majority of people who see it, but these are all good things. To be fair, the thing that is likely to put most people off is the fact it’s subtitled. There’s meaning and depth to be found should you choose to watch The Seventh Seal, and you can make of its themes what you will. Therein lies the signs not only of a good film, but a great one.

Score: 5/5

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