"Why must He hide amidst vague promises and invisible miracles?" the knight questions as he confesses to Death, who is incognito as a priest. The Seventh Seal thrives on these ironic contrasts in its religious investigation. The Christ imagery is inescapable -- from that of the holy monks to the "witch," who is credited with being the origin of the Black Plague -- but instead of being thematically overbearing, it is the glue holding together the earthly lost souls looking for answers. Soon after the chess game against Death begins, the knight and his squire get involved with a traveling band of merry makers. Be it the contrast between the happy-go-lucky players, one of whom has visions of the Virgin Mary, and the domineering monks parading the diseased through the streets, the dichotomy plagues the knight, as he attempts to give the actors safe passage through treacherous lands in a desperate, final good deed.
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Winter Light, like much of Bergman, is a slow ride, but it rewards your close attention. The action here has less to do with the plot than with the conflicts taking place within the hearts and souls of its protagonists. Björnstrand's pastor is one who is in crisis; he is battling to retain his faith, and to accommodate his mistress in his life. She has no belief in God; she nurtures on a more practical level (her job is as a school teacher), and the pastor is constantly rejecting her ministrations. The Swedish title of this film translates to The Communicants, meaning both those who take communion and those who communicate among themselves, and it's the tragedy of the film that none of them can.
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The Silence is spare, but not in the desolate wasteland sort of way of many Bergman films. In fact, the movie takes place in a city, mostly within a posh hotel. Two sisters get off a train when one of them, Ester (Ingrid Thulin) is too sick to go on. Her trollop sister Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) checks sis into a hotel, drops off her young son, and spends the hours cruising for men (which she finds). Eventually, Anna and the kid decide to continue on their journey, leaving Ester in the hotel, apparently to die alone.
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Wild Strawberries is exactly this type of film, a short but often unbearable production about an ancient doctor grappling with a death that is just around the corner. He ends up on a road trip, filled with false starts, wrong turns, and fantastic dream/fantasy sequences, all designed for him to confront death and question the existence of God. But nothing is really questioned, it is simply presented as bleak and nasty, with our hero facing the inevitability of a void in lieu of the afterlife. The film does not provoke any questions or debate about either death or God.
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Smiles of a Summer Night follows an ensemble cast through the motions of loving and betraying each other. Fredrik (Gunnar Björnstrand) is married to young Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), who is about his son's age. There were married shortly after his wife died, and have not yet consummated their marriage. This is partly due to him still dreaming of Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck), an actress with whom he had an affair for years (which his wife witnessed), and also due to his current wife not being quite ready for the experience of sex. His son is comically tormented between becoming a part of the clergy and giving into his sinful thoughts, the latter of which their maid continually attempts to influence. Being peers, the maid and wife are also friends despite their differences in life experience. She looks to the maid -- who is treated as part of the family -- for advice; it's understood that she's been around the block a few times.
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The premise of Darkly is possibly Bergman's richest setup despite its simplicity. A small family (dad, daughter, son, daughter's husband) vacation on a remote and lonely island. Over the course of their stay, we discover that daughter (Harriet Andersson) is insane -- and dad (Gunnar Björnstrand), a professional writer, is using her trauma as subject matter for his books. Naturally, this culminates in a disaster after the daughter and her husband (Max von Sydow) discover dad's journals.
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'Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing)' arrives in April.
The two awards have made for a great 72nd birthday present for the country music icon.