A lone black crow, a rough sea, a stormy sky, a knight challenging Death to a chess match. These visuals create one of the most iconic and recognizable opening scenes in cinema history.
First released in 1957, “The Seventh Seal” was the film that helped to make Ingmar Bergman a world-renowned director. The film follows a knight (Max von Sydow) returning from the crusades to find his country in the grips of the Black Plague. He begins a chess match against Death (Bengt Ekerot) in an attempt to prolong his life and give him the time to do one redeeming act before he dies.
This film is straightforward in the questions it asks and the existential motifs it presents. While many films today choose to leave room for interpretation for weighty topics such as life and death, “The Seventh Seal” refuses to be ambiguous. Bergman wants his audience to know exactly what he is getting at and wants them to think about what is being presented immediately. Many films today stay away from such direct manipulation, but this powerful presentation of messages is what makes this film so classic and timeless. It does not shy away from putting everything on the table and making the audience sit with it.
All the performances in this film are exceptional, but it is Sydow who deserves the most praise for his portrayal of the knight Antonius Block. His performance of a man struggling with his faith at a time when God seems absent is enthralling. His command of the role not only helps him lead the cast solidly but also aids in grounding the film. It is understandable why this role helped push him toward stardom, not just in his home country but in Hollywood as well.
The version of the movie that Film Forum is running is a new 4K restoration — an increased resolution to improve the quality of the picture — done by the Swedish Film Institute. This restoration brings new life to the film and revitalizes the beautiful and iconic cinematography of the film. The starkness of the light and dark is bolder and crisper so one can truly enjoy and perceive the definitive choices of lighting and expert use of black and white.
‘“The Seventh Seal,” although made in 1957, is truly timeless. While existential in nature it is still simplistic at its core, which is to say that it follows the human and natural connection to death and how this affects life itself and the relationship one has with God. At a time of intense crisis which every generation inevitably will face, this film gains new relevance as many go through the same moral and faith-based grapplings that Block goes through.
“The Seventh Seal” is sometimes considered one of the best foreign films of all time, and to some the best movie ever made. Upon viewing this newly restored version, it is clear why so many think this. The film excels in all aspects and provides a narrative that is engaging in what it offers and timeless in the way it is presented.
The newly restored version of ‘The Seventh Seal’ will run from Dec. 7-13 at Film Forum.
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