The Seventh Seal concerns a man, Antonius Block, who has just returned to his country from the Crusades. He finds his homeland in disarray, ravaged by the Black Plague. Upon his return, he is greeted by Death, who has come to take him away. Block, not surprisingly, values his life, and strikes up a deal with Death. They will play chess, and if Block wins, he will go free. As Block and his squire trek across the land on their way home, meeting and interacting with various people, Death continues to appear, eager to continue the game!
Oh, lordy, this is a good setup! I've always loved films that put Death as a character, and The Seventh Seal is the best of the bunch. The story is very interesting, always keeping you riveted to the characters and their plight. You know, going in, how it's going to end, and this sense of impending doom hangs over the whole movie, giving a gravitas few films have succeeded in emulating.
Max von Sydow is Block! I'm not that familiar with Sydow's work, having been introduced to him when he looked like a crumpled piece of paper. That being said, he is quite amazing here, delivering a heartfelt and earnest performance. Block is clearly traumatized by what he experienced in the Crusades, and von Sydow does a great job conveying this to the audience without ever actually saying it.
Gunnar Bjornstrand is Block's squire, Jans. His is more of the comic relief character, but that doesn't stop him from dropping some profound stuff every now and then. Bjornstrand does a great job laying off all the crazy characters he is forced to deal with, and effortlessly creates a portrait of an asshole that we can sympathize with.
There are some minor characters who feature heavily in the movie, and they are all good, to be sure. But it is Bengt Ekerot who steals the show as Death. He is positively terrifying as the Grim Reaper, creating an antagonist to frighten even the hardest person. His personification has been mimicked countless times, and nearly all of them miss the mark. Ekerot is the quintessential Death. No one does it better!
Performances all around are excellent, but von Sydow stands out because he has the most to work with and does it the best. He is still overshadowed by Ekerot, though. I'm sorry! When you play Death that well, you will walk away with the movie.
La la la la la!
This is the film that put master director Ingmar Bergman on the map! Bergman also wrote the script, so he already had a good grasp of the material going in, but it is amazing what he has done with The Seventh Seal. He does a great job handling his actors, letting them loose to explore the material, but always keeping them grounded in the reality of the situation! He sets up an atmosphere of despair and doom, and does a fantastic job of it. He even does a good job handling the bipolar aspects of the script. The films jumps around a lot in tone, from grim and depressing, to incredibly funny! There's a point to this. I just haven't figured out what it is yet.
Now, despite this, that bipolar thing is the only glaring flaw that I can detect in the thing. You leave the movie feeling a little unsettled, not just because the thing you saw was incredibly dark, but because there were some moments where you could not stop laughing. I left asking myself, "Should I feel sad, or happy?" It's not necessarily a bad thing, just an unwelcome thing, if you ask me.
But, that gripe is for naught, because the fact remains that The Seventh Seal is an awesome experience. I don't mean awesome in the "Woah! Did you see that explosion?" type of awesome. I mean it in the "Holy shit! This is such an amazing movie!" type of awesome! Awesome in the way Schindler's List was awesome, not the way The A-Team was awesome! Get me? Good. This is a masterful movie, one that will stick with you long after you finish it. It has great performances, an engrossing atmosphere, and the single greatest portrayal of Death ever put on screen. This is quite the little film! Check it out!