Film Essay — The Classic: Seventh Seal

And when the lamb opened the seventh seal there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour. And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets, prepared themselves to sound.” Revelation 8:1

Fifty-six years ago, The Seventh Seal (a film by Ingmar Bergman), used the above passage from Revelation– in motif– to explore the space of time when mortals become aware of approaching death. Is there an afterlife? Is there a God? Is existence just a messed-up form of interim punishment? Are we all just ants under the magnifying glass of a giggling God? These are all questions that I have just liberally attributed to Bergman’s film. To even flirt with addressing Bergman’s questions with earnest replies would be foolish, audacious, and even a bit creepy, right? Sure, but I’ve got a pocket-full of candy… so GET IN THE VAN!

Whilst geeking-out over the black-and-white film for the first of several times, my bloodshot eyes noticed something strange: the characters sounded a lot like figures on a Tarot deck [Enter disconcerting alien sound effects here]. Now, don’t run; I’m just going to take you on a brief journey through the film while substituting its characters with corresponding figures in a deck of Tarot cards. Once we identify the Tarot characters in order of appearance, we are going to present them to a local Tarot reader (Kierra Duran) for a proper Tarot reading. When Kierra’s interpretation is over, perhaps a new angle will be gleaned from a movie that some call the greatest ever made (I actually can’t disagree with that charge too loudly).

The film opens on the shores of a desolate beach where a knight of the crusades named Antonius Block (Knight of Swords) awakens on the bare rocks next to a chessboard. His squire, Jöns (Page of Swords), remains sleeping and sprawled out on the beach. Suddenly, the physical manifestation of Death (Death) appears. As the pale-faced apparition approaches with his outstretched cloak, Antonius challenged him to a game of chess to win his life. Death accepts the challenge, and round one of the mortal tournament begins and ends without a lost piece. Subsequently, Antonius and Jöns set back out on their journey-in-progress. Some time along, the chain-mailed duo come across a ragged man slouching against a rock. When Jöns approaches the layabout for directions to a local inn, Jöns comes face-to-face with the horrific jerky-bleached face of a corpse (The Hanged Man).  Later, the film brings us to a stagecoach containing three jovial traveling actors/jugglers: Jof and Mia (The Lovers), and Skat (The Fool).  Upon leaving the coach, Jof has a vision of the Virgin Mary (The Empress). The Empress of the Tarot dons a crown of twelve stars much like the Woman of the Apocalypse that appears in Revelation (a figure associated with The Virgin Mary). I just heard you thinking “that’s a stretch!”

Without ruining any surprises, Antonius Block spends the rest of the movie trying to find proof of God and the point of living in a crappy fly-infested medieval hellhole surrounded by general misery, the plague, and bloody early-Christian rituals… you know, a typical lighthearted romantic-comedy scenario. But what of the Tarot reading? 

Having identified the cards and laid them on the table, I asked Kierra Duran (White-Witch by heredity/Tarot Card reader by choice) to interpret the meaning of the above sequential combination of cards. Her evaluation of the cards read as follows (Note to Publisher: please enter the sound of thunderclaps and rain here): 

“Swords mean there will twice be a breaking down of things and Death will bring a rebirth. With The Hanged Man, something must be chosen. The Lovers bring a connection to God, but coming after The Hanged Man, the card indicates that there may be a new love coming into the picture. Could it be the love of man or love of God? With The Empress card I see that the choice has already been made and it is the higher course… and the party will be blessed, but The Fool predicts that the tests will happen again.” 

Thanks, Kierra! 

 A brilliant professor once told me that a sentence is the transference of energy across a medium that is able to defy even death itself. Now, the Tarot is meant for “entertainment purposes only,” but, in this case, The Tarot might have lead you to actual contact with the other side. Through The Seventh Seal, Bergman still continues this mortal conversation with us in a tone that is both elegant and oftentimes humorous. Only now, his questions have been answered, and he speaks to us from beyond the grave. If that is not magic, I don’t know what is.

by Kevin Healey


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