20 September 2010

20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 11, The Seventh Seal, by Ingmar Bergman

[Block's squire, Jöns, returns from asking directions of a man who turns out to be long dead.]
Block: Did he show you the way?
Jöns: Not exactly.
Block: What did he say?
Jöns: Nothing.
Block: Was he mute?
Jöns: No, milord. He was most eloquent.
Block: Indeed.
Jöns: But very gloomy.

A knight and his squire travel through a medieval Sweden wracked by the plague. Death himself comes for the knight, who challenges him to a chess game. This gives the knight a brief reprieve. He looks for God and tries to understand what life could mean. Along the way, they meet penitents who lash themselves, a small troupe of actors, a painter, a young girl accused of being a witch, and a theologian turned thief. 
The actor's family, Jof, Maria and their baby, may hold the answer, or part of it. Along the way, Block, the knight wrestles with the silence of God, the silence mentioned when the seventh seal was broken in the Book of Revelations.
The only certainty is Death.
 But Bergman holds something out to us, a hint, a suggestion, a sign of his own:
Block: I shall remember this hour of peace: the strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lute. I shall remember our words, and shall bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk.
[He drinks from the bowl.]
Block: And this will be a sign, and a great content.
Norishment given by a loving wife, a beautiful woman, a humble artisan of the theatre.

This sort of stuff seems ripe for parody, and sure enough, Woody Allen has some fun with it. (I wonder why Monty Python never tried.) But as a reader, you get sucked right in to the world of the script. It only rarely feels like an Allegory. Perhaps that's because the philosophical exchanges are usually brief, emotionally charged and come after gut-wrenching action. It doesn't feel like a sermon, either, because the ideas are vividly realized with flesh-and-blood characters who struggle, dream and breathe. Bergman throws in a lot of honest-to-goodness action, thrills and bone-chilling scares along the way, too. The scene with the flagellants creepy. The preparation of the "witch" for her burning wrenches your soul with pity. 
What stands out for me are 
  • the creation of a single, unified vision, supported by each aspect of the story
  • the shrewd sense of pacing and rhythm
  • the layers incorporated in each scene. They always work on multiple levels. You can be easily distracted by the aesthetic and philosophical content, but they're also concrete, relevant and advance the story
And, of course, the overall ambition and brilliance of the script. Reading it, I admired Bergman's prose very much -- along with everything else.

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