I have seen this film before, but with the vagaries of time much of it had been lost from my memory. As such, I approached this as a new experience untainted by much but the iconic final dance. I wanted to talk about this film first because it is clearly the ancestor of our current Oscar crops. Maligned in its day on its own shores, the Seventh Seal acquired critical reverence in English speaking countries due to its playful dialogue intermeshed with dark and apocalyptic tidings. Taking place over a short journey during the time of the black death, a wandering lot slowly assembles which loosely represent different philosophical approaches to life. The Knight is embroiled in a struggle between faith and nihilism, the Squire approaches life with a brusque practicality, the Actors make the best of an absurd situation over which they have little control. We also encounter representations of self-interest, fanaticism, and delusion in the thief, self castigators, and the witch respectively, all of which must interact with death personified.
This reading of the film is unmistakable and yet remarkable unforced. The general dreary tone of the film is nicely balanced by the comedic conversations and interactions, giving the allegory a compulsively watchable feel as we tick towards the end. Perhaps this balancing act is what has made the Seventh Seal an enduring classic. It’s all too easy to subject characters to a horrible chain of events and force them to act their way out. Movies like Precious or Dancer in the Dark force our empathy but will not endure as classics. Likewise, comedy is not traditionally appreciated for high accolades. No feature film nominated for an Oscar in 2012 would claim comedy as its primary identity. And yet here is something Seventh Seal and many Oscar nominees share in common; they are quite funny. Maybe this balance between comedy and drama just rings true to us, the audience. Life isn’t a sustained tone. Movies that insist on maintaining a tone are in a way high fantasy.
The Seventh Seal accomplishes this balancing act admirably considering it is a product of its time and funding. The forest was a cleverly shot patch of trees near a building, somewhere for them to loop around in. Many interactions on displayed seem muted. The castigators are horrific but the scene was a definite “old movie” vibe in its languid pacing and bloodless groans. The final flight of death is given mostly in narration by the Actor, with a single long distance shot capturing the final moments. Much as in literature the audience is left to imagine for themselves the dance of death and conflate the painting referenced earlier with our departing souls. These quibbles mark the growing pains of a maturing art form. Movies that premiere in our advanced age now have many reference points, tricks, and technology to help build upon the skeleton developed by Mr. Bergman, but the core essence of any credible epic still remains very similar at heart.