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A stark force that can never be outmaneuvered

The definitive Ingmar Bergman movie, “The Seventh Seal” (1957) looms over practically all of art cinema. A heavily symbolic allegory of faith and doubt set in plague-ridden medieval Sweden, this seminal movie was the height of midcentury existentialist chic and ground zero for the cinephile golden age. It gave the cultural intelligentsia permission to take film seriously.

“The Seventh Seal” has since fallen victim to changing tastes and to its own popularity. (If anything, it is now more middlebrow emblem than highbrow badge of honor.) And it is precisely its unabashed seriousness, once so seductive, that has contributed to its somewhat diminished reputation.

Many of the film’s images have passed into cinematic immortality, none more so than the recurring motif of a brooding knight locked in a mortal chess game with Death, assuming the form of a cowled, white-faced ghoul, and the final hilltop danse macabre, led by the scythe-wielding Grim Reaper. But the hooded figure of Death also has proved spoofable, popping up in such places as Bergman mega-fan Woody Allen’s “Love and Death,” Monty Python skits and “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.”

It might not be possible to liberate “The Seventh Seal,” reissued in a new two-disc edition this week by the Criterion Collection in both standard definition and Blu-ray, from the historical baggage that surrounds it. But first-time viewers, and those revisiting it after many years, might be surprised to find a movie that feels at once dated and timeless: Its deadly earnest sensibility harks back to another era, but its stark iconographic power is undimmed, stubbornly resistant to parody.

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The film’s spiritual quest unfolds as a long homeward journey. Returning from the Crusades to the ravages of the Black Death, an idealistic knight (Max von Sydow) is visited by Death himself (Bengt Ekerot) and tries to forestall his fate by challenging the Reaper to a chess game. They take turns making their moves as the knight and his cynical squire (Gunnar Bjornstrand) travel through a blighted landscape in the grip of religious fanaticism.

Their entourage grows to include a troupe of traveling players, including Jof (Nils Poppe), a kind of holy fool, and his wife, Mia (Bibi Andersson).

Bergman first conceived of “The Seventh Seal” as a play, and the dialogue retains a certain declamatory stiffness; literary allusions abound, from Cervantes to Camus. For the director, it was a deeply personal undertaking, a film he seized the opportunity to make after the international success of “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which won a prize at Cannes in 1955.

The son of a Lutheran minister, Bergman drew on his religious upbringing. The title comes from the Book of Revelation; ancient church frescoes first encountered as a child, in particular the work of Albertus Pictor, were a primary inspiration. But in devising a myth of the end of days, Bergman also tapped into his own mortal dread and into a very contemporary anxiety, the Cold War fear of a nuclear apocalypse.

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Bergman, who died two years ago at age 89, explored the notion of an absent or indifferent God with greater complexity in a ‘60s trilogy: “Through a Glass Darkly,” “Winter Light” and “The Silence.” But “The Seventh Seal,” a film that dares repeatedly to ask Big Questions out loud -- Does God exist? Why are we here? -- remains his most expansive and most elemental depiction of spiritual crisis.

Criterion’s second disc includes “Bergman Island,” a 2004 made-for-TV documentary structured around a series of conversations between Bergman and director Marie Nyrerod in his home on the remote island of Faro, where he shot “Through a Glass Darkly,” “Persona” and several other films.

Faro is also the location for Bergman Week, a festival devoted to the filmmaker that takes place every June.

In these candid, intimate chats, Bergman opens up about his childhood, his love life (including relationships with his actresses) and his guilt at being a delinquent father. He also dwells on his lifelong fear of death and his attempt to confront it with “The Seventh Seal.” In a 1971 interview, he called it a movie made “with enormous pretension,” but he would warm up to it later in life.

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In a 2003 interview with Nyrerod, recorded as an introduction for Swedish TV broadcasts of “The Seventh Seal,” he describes the terror of watching his own films -- “I feel nervous and on the verge of tears. I need to pee. I feel miserable” -- but goes on to call it one of his favorites.

“If I say I’ve made 10 good films, films I feel I can really stand behind, I think ‘The Seventh Seal’ is among them,” he said. “I’m certain of it.”

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calendar@latimes.com

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