I called the Bergman aficionado from the Barbican. He said, a little sniffily, so you're going to see it for the ninetieth time. Not being a Bergman aficionado myself, I muttered that I remembered seeing it once on TV when I was 19, but even this was a distortion. I'd seen the opening frames, nothing more.
Max Von Sydow sitting on a Swedish beach playing chess with Mr De'ath himself. Horses up to their fetlocks in whippy Northern waters. An eerie, intellectual gloss permeating the scene.
During these first few frames, imposing though they are, I feared that The Seventh Seal was going to prove too austere, too like a Calvinesque cathedral. Beautiful yet far from heart-warming. Which is the preconceived model of a Bergman film, a filmmaker most know more through Woody Allen's failed attempts to become him than his work itself.
The screen was disappointingly small and the print far from great. I girded my loins and prepared to bathe worthily in the great auteur's gloom, as Max Von Sydow set off with his page to avoid the plague.
If the reader wants to retain the Bergmanesque myth, stop here. Because the film itself fails to honour it. Strange things start to happen. A couple, she beautiful, he a quirky fool, awake in a meadow, play with their child, clown around. A blacksmith loses his wife to a knavish actor, then wins her back in scenes of knockabout comedy. The tone of the film becomes warm, comic, charming.
In a way The Seventh Seal can be summarised as a Black Death Road Movie. Which might have a Tarantino/ Rodriguez ring to it. Bergman's sensibility seems populist. He creates characters who are lovable, and exposes them to danger. The audience roots for their survival. Death seems more of a vengeful sprite than a macabre ghoul. The heavy handed costume and make-up worn by Bengt Ekerot loses any taint of horror, as he plots and plans. This is a character from a medieval morality play, a villain and a rogue, whose gleeful sense of humour is revealed in the film's theatrical closing shot.
The wider philosophical and psychological context of the movie passed me by. No doubt there were things that I missed. Yet, like Beckett, another author whose work is categorised as much by its reputation as its actuality, it would be easy to lose sight of the manifest entertainer at work, were one to dwell too ornately on the significance of the imagery. The title, The Seventh Seal has a portentous ring to it, which the film does not shy away from, but Bergman has been careful to root his fatalism within a kernel of earthy joy. So when Von Sydow is asked by Death at the end whether his stay of execution has been worth while, we, the audience know exactly what he means when he replies that it certainly has.
Note: Less than an hour after writing this I learn that Mr De'ath has caught up with Ingmar Bergman, who shall be playing chess no more.