Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007

I’m no Bergman expert, but I’ve seen a few of his films:

  • The Seventh Seal

  • Smiles of a Summer Night

  • The Virgin Spring

  • Die Zauberflaut (The Magic Flute)

  • Cries and Whispers

Of those, my favorite is Summer Night, the wistful, gaily melancholic romance that later became the basis for Sondheim’s musical A Little Night Music (aka “The One With ‘Send in the Clowns'”).

Still, I retain a persistent fondness for The Seventh Seal.  This despite my ready admission that the film is pretentious, heavy-handed, dramatically inert, and ultimately confounding.  In the face of all these criticisms though, I remain fond of the film precisely for some of these qualities; I admire Bergman’s resolute commitment (in this film at least) to often oblique (while superficially obvious) symbolism.  But, no, really, Seal isn’t about symbols as such–it’s not the rote equation of one motif with one meaning.  The systemic use of symbolism approaches an allegorical level in this film, and in that, I think, I locate its appeal: I rarely know what is going on beyond the basic narrative, but it is apparent that it means something, dammit.  It is not punctum, since the film is so plainly straining to mean, to signify.  But I appreciate the effort, even if feeling that ultimately, maybe, the complexity of the allegory is illusory: that the allegorical imagery and characters–Death, no less!–seems loaded with meaning because they are fraught with so many Big Issues: death, yes, but also fate, duty, family, faith.  The scope of the allegory seems to lift what might otherwise be trite symbolism into something nearer to great art.

Knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) wagers his life on a game of chess with Death (Gunnar Bjornstrand).

My fondess also rests to great degree on sheer nostalgia: as it was for many cinephiles, I’m sure, Seventh Seal was one of those films I saw during the early, exciting period of discovery when film becomes something more than just popcorn flicks and genial comedies, when the realization of film-as-art had just begun to percolate into my adolescent brain.  This was one of the Important Films, and you could just tell, looking at the stark b&w image of a beckoning Grim Reaper that adorned the old VHS coverbox:

Seventh Seal on VHS

The image, of course, is iconic, and the film delivered on its promise and challenge; for a pretentious, budding film snob, it seemed like the very apotheosis of cinematic art, laden with symbols, all those hushed whispers about plagues and mortal mysteries.  Here was a film that I could take pride in seeing, a film that I knew none of my Speed-citing peers could even dream of attempting, much less making sense of it: slow, deliberate, with nary an explosion to be found, a gosh-darn Grown-Up film.

Plainly, over time my affection for the film as faded somewhat–or at least, lost some of its adolescent vibrancy to a more measured, adult palette (the irony of that metaphor applied to such a starkly photographed b&w film is not lost on me).  But I thought, after hearing that Bergman had lost his own chess game with fate this weekend, that it was fitting to use this film as tribute to the late great.




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