The Seventh Seal (1957)

The Seventh Seal 1957

“And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour”.   

“Silence in heaven” — or rather the silence of God in the world — is Bergman’s grand theme. This movie contains nothing but knowledge of the unknown. Knowledge, that someone with existential crises (like me) can especially understand. Love, faith, religion, philosophy, God, death; all comes in together to make this beautiful masterpiece.

Considered a great classic of all times (and I vouch for its authenticity), The Seventh Seal can be difficult to comprehend and even more hard to stomach. It is after all a 1957, Swedish noir movie, I don’t expect the modern audience to bear it, much less like it.

It’s the ‘medieval times’, Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow), a Swedish knight returning home from the Crusades with his squire Jöns (Gunnar Bjönstrand) meets Death (Benkt Ekerot) on an abandoned beach and challenges him to a game of chess. If he wins, he lives. (Notice that only Antonius can see Death and no one else) As the story continues, Block and Jöns meet with several others who are evidence to the suffering that the Black Death (plague) has brought upon their land. They find a young girl who is considered a witch for having seen the Devil to be burned alive at the stake. They discover insanity in the eyes of everyone they meet, as each one is certain that God is angry with them and is punishing the world with the black plague. They also find a small group of traveling actors, Jof (Nils Poppe), his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), and their infant son Mikael, who appear to be the only souls to have remained sane during these troubled times, and are trying to bring joy to others through their plays/acts.  These people may be a little dim, but they are good at heart and you can see the happiness in Antonius’ eyes when he is together with them for the first time. This goes to show that not knowing about God or Death or believing in any socially acceptable customs and religion can make you a very happy human being. It is only when you gain the knowledge of this vacuous beliefs that you start to die or, to put it more nicely; you forget how to truly live.

The game of chess continues at each interval and Antonius inquires Death about philosophically deep questions that are bothering him. Death is ambiguous in answering them. In the end, however, Death is a much better player than any of us, and though he may humor some of his opponents by letting them think that they have the advantage, the end result is inevitable: Death always wins. No matter how skilfully we plan our moves or how determined we are to win, we can never beat Death.

If I start quoting from this movie, I might end up writing the whole movie script. Personally, the dialogues were definitely the real star of the show, as these were extremely stimulating and carefully constructed throughout the film. Almost every line spoken is, in one way or another, daunting and unforgettable. From the first sentence to the last, you won’t be able to listen to your own thoughts. It is that good. I see now where Woody Allen get’s his inspiration from. He considered Bergman as the cinematic genius. And I agree.

With great performances by every actor, the scenes are truly made memorable by the cast. Beautiful cinematography work done by Gunnar Fischer. The Seventh Seal teaches you that even when you are not getting any answers, you don’t stop asking questions.

Existentially poetic, slow paced and gloomy, this Ingmar Bergman’s classic has made a special place with film royalties, inspired numerous spoofs, and exceeded the expectations of both believers and non-believers for nearly half a century. Although it is dark and grim, it still somehow manages to spark hope in you that things might turn out better. Long considered one of the greatest films of all time, Bergman’s medieval production of fighting with inner demons can be difficult to watch but is truly impossible to forget.

A must watch before you die. (There’s an existential joke for you) 😉

the-seventh-seal

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Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

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Love vs. Passion

If you were the greatest guitar player in the 20’s-30’s jazz era, (second only to Django Reinhardt) would you consider giving it all up for love? Is there any contest between love and passion to a true artist? What if it was only when you have found and lost the love of your life that you can bring out the best of you in your performance? Well, I don’t expect anyone to find out the answers to these provocative questions, but it does make you wonder “What If?’’

Sweet and Lowdown is as bitter sweet as the title suggests. It celebrates the kind of classic 1930’s jazz that has been played through the soundtrack of many a previous Allen film, and that finally has the chance to occupy center stage. Like several of Allen’s other films (e.g.Zelig), Sweet and Lowdown is occasionally interrupted by interviews with critics and biographers like Allen, Nat Hentoff, and Douglas McGrath, who comment on the film’s plot as if the characters were real-life people.

A mockumentary about a fictional, 30’s traveling jazz guitarist Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), who embodies the debonair and the spirit of the music that he plays and is yet; for the lack of words, gut-wrenching when off stage. He admires Django and yet calls him “this gypsy in France.” Every time he sees his superior he faints or runs away. Which provides quite a few laughs in the film. Emmet boasts of his skills on guitar, which is indeed magical. He is also a kleptomaniac, a trait which has not been psychoanalyzed in this movie. Emmet’s idea of a great time is shooting rats at the dumpster; here too the audience enjoys a good laugh and tries to figure out, how can a man who creates magic on stage can be so repulsive?

Emmet is a very complex and frustrated individual for whom one develops equal amounts of disgust and pity as an audience. He has an egotistical bravado and is interestingly dysfunctional.  He sees himself as charming and romantic as opposed to sad and lonely which is a fact. What we are told about him is that, what’s making him second best in his field is the fact that his music lacks emotions. He is anything but emotional. He goes from women to women with meaningless liaisons and prefers it this way.

Emmet: ”I’m an artist. I like women but they gotta have their place.” 

All this changes when he meets Hattie (Samantha Morton) a mute laundress. She is drawn to Emmet’s music and enjoys spending time with him. Emmet on the other hand is not very pleased to meet her but gradually starts falling for her, for she never has anything to say which makes her the perfect match for Emmet who loves to chat. They move to Hollywood where Hattie is casted in a movie wherein she has to kiss a handsome lead actor. She takes dozens of retakes while doing so and is said to have gone in a “Small coma after 30 takes.” Now Emmet feels like he has been sidelined (feeling jealous of Hattie’s success) and so decides to move back home. Being the free willed he is, Emmet soon abandons Hattie for Blanche (Uma Thurman) a socialite/ author with a penchant for artistic men.  They both get married. Blanche is fascinated by the worldliness of Emmet and keeps making notes about him in her notepad

Blanche: “Wow, not only are you vain and egotistical, but you have genuine crudeness!”

She digs deep into Emmet’s lack of emotions and confronts him one day to break him the harsh reality.

Blanche: “You keep your feelings all locked up, so you can’t feel anything for anyone else. I’ve never met anybody so afraid to show their feelings.”

Blanche, in next to no time leaves Emmet for a hit-man (to everyone’s amusement) who engulfs her with stories about mob intrigue.  In the end, Emmet realizes what a huge mistake he did on letting Hattie go. He decides to get her back but soon comes to know that Hattie is now happily married and is raising a family.

Emmet finally breaks down in tears and realizes that he “made a mistake” (in leaving Hattie). The narrator then points out to the audience that from that point on Emmet was in every way Django’s equal.

Sweet and lowdown was an emotional comedy. Stars like Sean Penn and Samantha Morton brought Emmet and Hattie to life. With 3 wins and 13 nominations for various prestigious awards, the movie was one of the better celebrated works of Allen.  The film with its approach to seem more real than fiction; tries to integrate both the aspects to the T. Woody sure knows how to mix music and drama on the big screen in which love triumphs all.

Apart from the drama, what stood out more was the beautiful jazz soundtrack. The credit of course goes to Dick Hyman for arranging and conducting the music for the film and to Howard Alden for the guitar solos and coaching Sean Penn on playing those solos for his role in the film.

Sweet and Lowdown was well received by the audience and holds fresh ratings (78%) on Rotten Tomatoes and a 70 on Metacritic, indicating favorable view. It is a charming, light-hearted comedy with quality acting. A must “Must watch.”

Rebecca (1940)

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A psychological drama, a thriller. Rebecca was Alfred Hitchcock’s first American project, produced by David O. Selznick, based on the 1938 novel titled Rebecca written by Daphne du Maurier.  Starring Sir Lawrence Olivier as the gloomy upper-class widower Maxim de Winder, Joan Fontaine as the naive young women who ends up becoming his second wife, and Judith Anderson as the severe housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.

It is a no colour film; but you don’t need colours when you have a gothic fiction to put in the picture. The audience never meets Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife. She is kept a complete mystery up until the second half of the story.  Joan’s character is nameless; she is referred to as Dear, Darling, Mrs. De Winter and Madame. By not mentioning Joan’s character’s name, Alfred tried to sub-consciously build Rebecca’s unrevealed story over the second Mrs. De Winter in audience’s head.

You will find yourself in the protagonist’s shoes as she goes along trying to make out how to be an aristocrat’s wife in the beautiful mansion that is Manderley; what it was that actually happened to Rebecca; why Maxim gets agitated every time something or someone reminds him of his first wife and also why Mrs. Danvers has hostility towards her.

Piece by piece the jigsaw comes into focus as the truth about Rebecca is revealed. Only to everyone’s surprise, the puzzle still has lost pieces and they must figure out what these are to get the whole picture.

This movie had everything, drama, thrill, romance and suspense right up to the very end. You never know what’s going to happen next. For a movie that old, I was not expecting much but I was delighted to see the brilliance that is Alfred Hitchcock.

My favourite characters in the movie were Mrs. Danvers the antagonistic housekeeper played by Judith Anderson and Mr. Jack Favell, Rebecca’s “Favourite cousin” played by George Sanders. Mrs. Danvers brought the horror in the story for me and Mr. Favell brought the spark that I thought the movie lacked initially.

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If I go into the details of elucidating their characters, I might as well write up the whole movie here. But, I won’t do that. If for not anything else, watch this movie just for these two performers. You won’t be sorry, I solemnly swear.

The movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Cinematography (black and white). Sir Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson were all nominated for their roles along with Alfred Hitchcock for Best Director.

Rebecca was adapted as a radio play on many occasions. It has been remade by Bollywood twice. The first remake was Kohra (1964), starring Waheeda Rehman and Biswajit Chatterjee; the second was Anamika (2008), starring Dino Morea, Manisha Lamba and Koena Mitra, but to no real success.

There is also a BBC adaptation, first screened in 1979 and shown on PBS in the US, starring Jeremy Brett as Maxim, Joanna David as the second Mrs. de Winter, and Brett’s former wife Anna Massey as Mrs. Danvers.

This movie was the first of my Alfred Hitchcock’s must watch list and it helped me in my perspective of him as a director. I was excited to step into the shadow years and now that I have, I have no regrets.

Source: IMDB and Wiki