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In 1972 or '73, Aaron Streiter, a brilliant Brooklyn College professor, showed us Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal in class as a vivid, shorthand way of making us understand the mentality of the Middle Ages and the moment at which the Renaissance was born. After showing us the film, he acted out for us his own version of that transformation: this intelligent, agitated man, who delightfully lost all self consciousness in his enthusiasm, stared grimly straight ahead at a goal or a revelation: the medieval hierarchy of God and angels, the knowledge of duty and sin, the darkness of human life on the road to salvation. Then he noticed something delightful to one side, perhaps a field of flowers, and looked away with a smile. Remembering his duty, he stared again at the grim future, but could not resist turning back to smile at nature. This constituted a sharp battle that lasted several minutes, and ended when he stopped resisting, and turned entirely to one side to admire beauty.
It was the first time I had seen the film, which I immediately loved and have watched many times since. It is my candidate for the second greatest movie ever made (La Strada is the greatest). I have very little to say about it that Professor Streiter did not tell us, but I watched it again a few days ago and would rather write about it than the disaster that is the American health care system, or the fact that civilization is going to hell in a handbasket.
The story is a very simple one, but Bergman must have put great thought into selecting it, as a fitting but non-didactic vehicle for the conflicts he wanted to express. A knight and his squire return to Sweden after ten years on crusade in Palestine--years of murder, disease, vanity and futility. They discover a land which is being destroyed by the black plague, where order has broken down, and ignorance, fear and evil are rampant. On their very first night ashore, Death, a pale, hooded figure, comes to claim the Knight, who challenges him to a game of chess. The game spans the next few days of travel, keeping the knight and his entourage alive until the denouement.
As they travel across Sweden, they rescue a silent woman from being raped at a deserted farmhouse, and then pick up, and also protect from violence, a married couple who are traveling actors. They witness an itinerant horde of penitents, whipping one another, staggering under huge crosses, attempting to appease God and get Him to lift the plague. A grim group of soldiers pass by with a teenage girl in a cage, taking her to be burned for witchcraft. Finally, they reach the knight's castle and find his faithful wife who has waited for him, without news, for ten years.
The knight is in an agony of doubt. He desperately wants to believe that God exists, but can see no sign of Him in the landscape. The squire has lost all belief, but somehow maintained his own personal standards of integrity in a moral vacuum, and also believes in clinging to and enjoying every drop of life to the last moment. The simple, loving actors are Professor Streiter's Renaissance people; they believe in God without worrying about existential issues, love each other and their year old child, and are sensual, faithful and inherently good, ready to create and live in a sunnier world than the one of which the knight is capable. The silent woman embodies Eliot's "infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing"; there is a moment at which she has to be restrained to keep her from bringing water to the man who tried to rape her, now dying of plague.
Bergman's immense accomplishment is to make a subtle, non-didactic movie about God. Almost everyone who has ever set out to make an intentionally philosophic film-- Woody Allen and Alain Resnais come to mind--has failed as a result of vanity, pretension, an irresistible desire to lecture or conversely, to cloak oneself in the deliberate vaguenesses of French deconstructionist theory. Bergman and a few others-- Carl Theodor Dreyer-- know how to make simple, humble movies about the terrible need for, and doubt of, a God. Aaron Streiter appropriately picked the movie to show his decidedly blue collar and non-intellectual class because it accomplishes the mission of including absolutely everything needed for that day's lesson, without once making you feel as if you are listening to a lecture.
The Seventh Seal, which takes its name from a moment in Revelations when the end of the world is on its way, contains a few unforgettable cinematic moments. There is a set piece at the philosophic center of the movie's intentions when the knight and squire interview the young woman about to be burned as a witch. She believes that Satan is her protector and asks the knight if he can see the devil in her eyes. He replies, no, only fear. He asks the monk in charge why they have broken her hands; turning to him, the monk is revealed to be Death, who says, "Will you never stop asking questions?"
This is a terribly important moment in the history of civilization, when we must resolve the conflict between the existing rule-set of the Middle Ages, which has drummed into us that knowledge is sin, with our inherent desire for truth and clarity which eventually will act as a solvent dissolving the old ways. When the knight answers, No, he becomes a kind of Moses, who can lead the young couple to the borders of the Renaissance, but cannot enter himself.
There is also a peaceful moment in a sunny field, when the young couple are admiring their son, and the father says he will be an acrobat who does the greatest trick of all: "to make a ball stand still in the air." That's impossible, says mom. Not for him, dad replies. It is a moment of consummate faith in the future, in human progress, which became a lodestar of the Renaissance and was unknown to the Middle Ages, to whom human life was the short flight of a sparrow through a well-lit hall and into the darkness on the other side. However, and I am not sure this was Bergman's intention, it contains a hint of darkness as well. The prediction that the child will have knowledge so great as to permit him to interfere with the forces of nature, leads us to imagine a descendant of his analyzing ways of splitting a uranium atom: a moment at which our technological power has become supreme, but our moral schema have hardly advanced from the medieval landscape Bergman portrays.
The knight, who has said that he wants to draw out the chess game to accomplish one last good deed, distracts death while the young couple flees, saving the lives of these Renaissance folk. The knight asks Death what he can reveal about God, and there is another moment of great importance, and no didacticism, when Death, with a look of frustration, reveals that he just does his job, but really doesn't know anything at all. And we believe him.
At the end, in the castle, the knight's lady has served a meal and is reading from Revelations, when Death arrives and is greeted by everyone with great dignity, except the knight, who prays and cries, desperate for God to the last, terrified of death. The squire lectures him there is nothing in the dark, that even now one can hold onto the last moments of life, feel one's heart pumping until it stops. The knight's lady, calm and accepting, shushes the squire, who agrees to be silent under protest.
During this entire, extended scene, a remarkable thing is happening: the silent woman's face begins to twitch and we see that she is breaking out in a radiant smile. Finally, never having uttered a word for the entire movie, she says: "It is finished!"--one of the seven statements attributed to Jesus on the cross. This unique character, almost always in the background, who has represented intense suffering coupled with great compassion, whose silence has communicated utmost resignation in the face of a world she cannot do the least thing to change, is glad to lay down her unbearable burden.