Part Of The Picture: To Know the Unknown

Posted on August 6, 2010

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TO KNOW THE UNKNOWN

AUG 7, 2010 – OVER A THUNDEROUS HEAVENLY chorus, clouds spill over with light. It’s daybreak. On the surface of the earth, however, it’s far quieter, with waves lapping gently against the shore as a gentle voice intones, “And when the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was in heaven a silence which lasted about the space of half an hour.” This quote sets up not only the Biblical allusions in the film’s title but also the concept of silence in heaven, silence from a God who will not offer direction to his noblest creation. (And as God created man in His image, this silence, this lack of listening and guidance, is manifest in man too. At one point in the film, a rapist warns a would-be victim, “Don’t try to scream. No one will hear you, neither God nor man.” And elsewhere, when a weary squire asks a man for directions, the man turns out to be dead, thus eternally silent.)

We now see, by the seashore, the knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), his head propped against a rock, his hand curled around a sword. These are not peaceful times. Block is returning from the Crusades, though a bigger battle wages in his mind as he contemplates the morning sky. To know what he is thinking, we will have to wait until the confessional scene, later, where Block will reveal, “I want to confess as honestly as I can, but my heart is empty. And emptiness is a mirror turned to my own face. I see myself and am seized by disgust and fear.” This scene refers back to both the physical cloud before Block’s eyes (on the beach, in the opening scene), along with the figurative cloud in his mind, as Block wonders, “Why does He hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles?”

Back at the beach, we now see the knight’s squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), splayed out in sleep, with none of the meditative miseries of his master. The only similarity is that his hand too is curled around a weapon, a hunting knife. We return to Block, who kneels and begins to pray. But is he really praying? His hands are clasped, but his eyes are wide open. He’s unable to lose himself in prayer. Again, we need to anticipate the confession scene to read his thoughts. “How can we believe in the faithful when we lack faith? What will happen to us who want to believe, but cannot? What about those who neither want to nor can believe? Why can’t I kill God in me? Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way despite my wanting to evict Him from my heart? Why is He, despite all, a mocking reality I can’t be rid of?”

Det Sjunde Inseglet (1957, Swedish; aka The Seventh Seal). Directed by Ingmar Bergman. Starring Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Max von Sydow.

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Posted in: Cinema: Foreign