28 October 2022

52 for '22: The Seventh Seal

Movie: The Seventh Seal (1957)

Method: HBOMax

Why Did I watch this?

This had been on my list forever and I never summed up the courage to watch it. Halloween season seemed appropriate - what's scarier than DEATH, baby?! It's supposedly one of the greatest movies of all time and a huge cultural force. It's what this series was made for.

What Did I know ahead of time?
I mostly know this film from Animaniacs and Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991). A knight plays checkers to stave off Death and try to win his life. Or chess or whatever. I knew it was an Ingmar Bergman film and it was Swedish, hence why Death is always Swedish in contemporary pop culture and loves meatballs.

How Was It?

I'm a tasteless bore! I dunno, maybe it was the 1950s Swedish allegory, I had a tough time getting into this. I wanted to see more of Max von Sydow's Antonious Block, but it seemed like he just peaced out for most of the movie and we get these unrelated little vignettes of the town weirdos.

It's all cohesive at the end though, and it sure is bleak. Death comes for us all and God is silent. Yay. Along the way we get juggler harassment, a crazy woman burned at the stake, and the grim specter of the Plague at every corner. This is actually a well known documentary of the year 2020.

It's fun to see von Sydow, Lor San Tekka himself so young and showing why he'd go on to have a 60-year acting career. He's got insane presence, charisma as he thinks he can cheat death, and then true pathos when he realizes both that he can't and there may be not but emptiness in the Great Beyond.

The most compelling scene is when he and his squire begin to consider that possibility as they watch the definitely not a witch burn and her eyes are empty as she welcomes death. Death is so omni-present in their world that the only way to cope is to believe there is something better waiting for you. If not, it's true horror. HALLOWEEN, BABY!

I actually expected better film stock but it's shot wonderfully, especially a handful of scenes whith Death's exceptionally pale face lit amongst his black robes. It's a great budget dodge that relies on metaphor which increases its power. You'd just never see this in a modern film anymore, it'd be too self-conscious (and then ironically turn to CGI, which would make it hokey).

I'm always impressed with how efficiently old films move - the characters are so lived in that you get a sense for them immediately and they're all distinct. The film then challenges them with confronting Death itself, perhaps no greater reveal of character. It enhances each characters' reaction so much! I only wish when they start appearing on screen with no other context we had something to ground us, even if it's through Block's encountering them or something. That's what I call a block chain!

The film is great, not perfect, but really hits its subject matter down to the bitterest of bones. I need to let the metaphor wash over me more, but if you want a spooky movie to cuddle up with at a Halloween Party this weekend, there's no better!

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