Ingmar Bergman - The Seventh Seal



Photo is of the beautiful rocky beaches at Hovs Haller (May 2015) where some scenes from the Seventh Seal were filmed.

In the continuing effort to become more acquainted with Swedish culture, went to iTunes to rent the classic film The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman. There are spoilers below!

The film was a vehicle to touch upon the modern (and timeless) angst felt by Bergman and many people in regards to the intersection of the harshness of life and (un)belief in God.

The Knight is a believer who is facing doubt and his squire side-kick has long since abandoned faith. The Knight meets Death and offers a game of chess as a "delaying tactic" that permits the rest of the story. Along the way, these two comment from their perspectives about the various people and situations they encounter. The film catalogs examples of the bad side of the Christian faith: the discussion about fear as a motivator in the artist's drawings in the church, the hypocritical seminary graduate, the bizarre pageant of the Cross and self-flagelation, and the burning of the girl.

The mostly bleak story set in the plague endemic Middle Ages has moments of humor and a beautiful small slice of life scene when the Knight enjoys a respite of milk and strawberries with Jof, Mia and their infant. Is it a "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die" moment? Or is it the kind of joy and gratitude that comes from the simple faith that Jof and Mia appear to have and that for a brief moment the Knight reclaims?

Don't think it would be much of a spoiler to say that Death wins the chess match. The ending of the film is intriguing and open to interpretation. Death leads the band of travelers in a dance. But to where?

Each character in the film responds to the intersection of the harshness of life and (un)belief in God in their own way. Beyond the Knight's overt struggle between faith and doubt and the squire's welcoming an abandonment of faith, there is the girl who says almost nothing in the film, the actor who does whatever he wants, the bickering married couple, and the stoic Knight's wife. This undoubtedly mirrors the variety of human responses to the realities of life.

From what I have heard, Bergman did not have a positive outlook about the Christian faith. How much of that was from seeing bad examples and how much his own worldview? Sadly, it is easy to say bad things about the Christian faith by pointing to bad examples of the Christian faith as they are all too common.

Since movies are often the visions of the creative force behind them, one wonders which of the characters in the movie did Bergman identify with the most?

One would guess Max Von Sydow's Knight.

Interestingly, the Knight feels he must do something to earn peace of mind and he latches on to the chess game to delay death and preserve the lives of Jof, Mia, and their infant. Did Bergman feel his film(s) were a way to earn peace of mind and make use of his time while the chess game with death plays out to its inevitable conclusion?

In regards to the Knight, might that be part of the Knight's folly? After all, is it possible that on this particular occasion Jof, Mia, and their infant weren't on Death's visitation list? Thus, the Knight's efforts may have had no actual effect on their situation? The "extra time" was meant really for the Knight to sort through his own life? Thus, did the Knight miss the "Amazing Grace?" Amazing Grace is not earned, rather it is received and accepted with humility and gratitude and joy.

The contrast of the Knight's grim predicament is quite striking compared to Jof, Mia, and their child who exude simple joy which seems to grow out of their faith. One might wonder if Bergman longs for that simple faith but finds himself as Van Sydow's knight looking for answer and seeking to earn peace of mind and missing out on that simple joy?

On the other hand, is Bergman, in some ways mocking Jof, Mia, and their baby's idilic but ultimately naive life?

Don't know which way Bergman was going with that contrast.

But going back to the film's narrative arc which catalogs the failing of people who claimed to have faith.

My response would be to acknowledge the failings of Christian people (can't deny the obvious). I would also point out that God, if we believe he exists, isn't going to be fooled by such people who claim faith but live in destructive ways. I would also go forward and point toward good examples of the Christian faith - indeed, one can find them (e.g. Mother Teresa, individuals and organizations that fought slavery and do so today in fighting human trafficking, etc). And, of course, one must look at the central figure of the Christian faith - Jesus. A reading of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) shows Jesus facing the central struggle of humanity - the intersection of the harshness of life and belief in God. His righteousness, compassion, servanthood, and obedience through it all results in the injustice of death on the Cross and the vindication of resurrection!

The Knight, in his confession in the church to the shadowy figure whom he thought was a priest but was actually Death, says he wants God to reach out his hand, show his face, and speak to him.

To which again, one must look at the central figure of the Christian faith - Jesus. John 1:14, And the Word abecame flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

God has reached out his hand, shown his face, and spoken to us: through Jesus!

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