I have seen the face of death and he’s a grim motherfucker. Parodied by many a film including Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, it is Death as imagined by Ingmar Bergman that I am talking about. The Swedish auteur’s black and white masterpiece, The Seventh Seal, is something I’m quite glad I watched because it really lives up to the hypemill and manages to feel really substantial even though it was filmed back in 1957. Shit is as dry and as serious as it gets.

The film takes its name from the book of revelations in the Christian bible and it has a knight returning to Sweden after the crusades. He finds the place ravaged by the plague and his own faith in God diminished. Death pays him a visit and the knight tries to buy time by challenging him to play a game of chess, whilst he struggles to accept the idea of life after death, or the lack of it rather. His depressing view on life sees him not living it to the fullest, a concept that his squire seems to embellish, hitting on girls, getting into fights and appreciating life despite all its chaotic nuances. Meanwhile, a travelling actor brings another perspective into light, living vicariously with his simple faith. These 3 different takes on life and death are the driving force behind the film, a poetic look at mortality. Some of the lines in there are simply brimming with a touch of philosophical goodness.

Cinematically speaking, the film is shot beautifully. The opening scenes, in particular, are really stark, precise chunks of black juxtaposed against bright white on some indeterminable shoreline. Not unlike the chessboard, which is a motif that Bergman borrows from a painting he saw of Death playing chess. Its not good versus evil but life versus death. Two sides to a coin maybe, or perhaps they are the same side after all. Bengt Ekerot plays the grim reaper, decked out like Darth Vader’s idol, his full length black robe and cape mask his body in a mystery. Only his extra pale face is visible, as if it were suspended in space. I suppose that’s a pretty apt idea of personifying death, as a face in a cloud of emptiness.

The existentialist element in the film is apparently linked to the director himself, brought up as a Lutheran but growing skeptical with time, Bergman himself also wondered about life, death and god. A scene where the knight confesses to a priest has him wailing out about the intangible nature of the creator. He worries endlessly about life being meaningful when there is unrelenting death nearby. He simply cannot accept the emptiness that comes with death.

Whilst the film appears to be rather gloomy in general, it is not a pessimistic one. It just asks the questions that we all ask at some point in our lives. If anything, it ends on a happy note, what with birds chirping and a young couple with a baby and all. Even if the subject matter might not be your cuppa tea, the depiction of death and the visual treats are definitely worth watching. There’s morbid scenes where a troupe of penitent believers are led by soldiers and monks with incense filled jars, smoke billowing out amidst all the flagellation, crying, moaning, cross carrying and doomsaying.

A particularly annoying priest who calls for nothing but doom doom doom might even be a slight criticism of religion as a whole as well. Another scene has a former priest stealing from the dead, not really deviating from his scavenging ways before the plague struck when he profited through the dissemination of fear. This is probably the one side theme that the show ponders cynically.

The Seventh Seal is an amazing film and a most brilliant introduction to a filmmaker who was and is heralded as one of the greats. I am clearly going to have to watch a few more Bergman pieces.

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