Film Follies, Subtitle Subversive

Subtitle Subversive- The Seventh Seal

Cinema, like all the arts, serves many functions. Sometimes it is meant to help us escape. Sometimes its meant to give us hope. Sometimes its meant to expose an uncomfortable truth about the society in which we live. And sometimes its supposed to make us reflect on the nature of existence itself. In this edition of Subtitle Subversive, we’ll be taking a look at Ingmar Bergman’s Det Sjunde Inseglet or, as it is called in English, The Seventh Seal.
One of Bergman’s seminal works, The Seventh Seal tells the tale of a knight as he returns home to Sweden after ten years away fighting in the crusades. The knight, played brilliantly here by Max von Sydow, is joined on his journey by his squire and a literal personification of Death. The film begins with the knight challenging Death to a game of chess for his eternal soul. As the knight’s journey progresses so does the game.
That is the plot of the film but it is not really the point of the film. The point of the film is to ask the big questions. It is a film where Death is present but God is absent. What is the point of existence? What does God wish of us? Does God even exist? These are hardly original questions, but they are asked with such earnestness here that you cannot help but reconsider your answers to them yourself.
That’s not to say that the plot is unimportant. It is the canvas upon which Bergman paints his existential dread. And the context within he poses his brooding questions of philosophy. The knight cannot beat Death, only delay and distract him. Keeping the game going long enough for the knight to accomplish one good thing. Thus the knight finds his purpose but not his answers. Because even Death does not have those.
Bergman bares his soul in this film, perhaps more so than in any of his other works. For all his actor’s subdued portrayals, there is no subtlety in this film. It asks its questions directly, boldly and yet with every second you can almost feel Bergman’s fear. His fear that he might not like the answers he gets. And an even greater terror that he may never get his answers at all. It is not uncommon for a film’s protagonist to be an avatar of its director, but it is rare that it does so with such grace.
The Seventh Seal is more than just a ‘50s art-house film, it is a masterpiece of Swedish cinema. And a must-see for any fan of film who wishes to be worthy of the title cinephile.

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