WILLIAM McBRIDE: There is a scene that comes about half-way through The Seventh Seal that anyone who has had the solemn pleasure of watching Ingmar Bergman’s tragi-comic masterpiece will remember.
The motley band of mediaeval travellers – a weary knight and his right-hand man, just returned from the Crusades; a small and beautiful family unit who traverse the lands in a wagon as a travelling theatre troupe; a docile oaf who has lost his wily wife to a tricky Romeo; and a mute, abandoned maiden with the obligatory gift of the sixth sense – all pause for a moment’s respite on a meadow atop a cliff over-looking the ocean, and share a bowlful of milk and some wild strawberries.
Each, in their own way, has had a hard time of late – their land is beset by the Black Plague, and, worse, the equally contagious paranoia and rumours that advance the infection like spies on reconnaissance. They have already seen death littered about the landscape, in the form of rotten, diseased corpses, and our hero, a quiet, rawboned knight called Antonious Block, is warding off a pesky, bored, waxen-faced Death at every turn, by way of a high-stakes chess match.
This moment’s rest comes before a planned journey through a dark forest where they will encounter yet more horrors of the human condition, including a ghastly procession of self-flagellating peasants who, in the absence of any other explanation – in face of ‘God’s silence’ – have convinced one another that it is their innate human despicableness that has brought on the disease. Marching, ceaseless, through the lands, these hordes scream, lash themselves and one another, and preach their own derangement to all who will bow down before them; in the absence of any other explanation, most of those watching on drop to their knees and sign the cross.
But back on the meadow, as the new friends pass around their modest treats, Block, whose nature is as subdued as his name implies, opens up: “I shall remember this moment: the silence, the twilight, the bowl of strawberries, the bowl of milk. Your faces in the evening light. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lyre. I shall try to remember our talk. I shall carry this memory carefully in my hands as if it were a bowl brimful of fresh milk. It will be a sign to me, and a great sufficiency.”
And then, without music, camera-panning, or a Vaseline-lensed scene change, the moment is over; Block stands up and prepares his things for the grim journey ahead.
Observations on such moments in life usually come in the form of reflection, and so this scene might resonate with you perhaps when standing still on the escalators as you descend into London’s Underground on your daily commute; or, perhaps, when you catch yourself idly clicking through the Facebook pages’ of now-faded friendships.
There are no credits on the BFI’s old print, so when the film is over, the lights comes on almost straight away. The audience of NFT1 – more than two thirds full on this Friday night – pause, and then quietly gather their things and leave the cinema without talking much at all.
Outside, negotiating the route back to East London with my friend, I insist on a river walk along Southbank, for, although it is an especially bitter evening – the winter in February is spiteful, defiant – a walk by the timeless river will compliment our ruminative moods, supplementing that moment’s respite usually afforded by long cinema credits.
My friend and I, both Australians who ‘like culture’ have an in-joke of sorts, a simple refrain that we hiss back and forth at each other whenever this city has especially impressed us with its unfathomable discharge of cultural offerings.
Simply: “London! LONDON!!”
A thick native accent is layered on and, with only a light snobbery, we enjoy that we are effusing over, say, a Bergman classic, and not Fabric, Ryanair or cheap Ketamine.
A classic it is, and part of the Cannon, but that The Seventh Seal, 53 years old this year, was scheduled at the whim of a BFI programmer, and not legitimised within the context of a lumbering retrospective, is what gets us. That, on a Friday night, there were 100s of people in the auditorium, is striking to the outsider’s eye.
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