Criterion // 1957 // 97 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // June 18th, 2009
"I met Death today. We are playing chess." -- Antonius Block
The folks at Criterion rarely double dip into their extensive library of international cinema. When they do, you know it's with good cause.
Antonius Block (Max von Sydow, Judge Dredd), a frail and enervated knight, has returned from the Crusades to find the countryside ravaged by the Black Plague. He and his opinionated squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand, Fanny and Alexander) collapse on the beach, deflated. As if matters aren't bad enough, Block is visited by Death (Bengt Ekerot, The Magician). Not simply content to die on the beach, Block challenges Death to a game of chess, hoping to hold off his demise until he can at least discover the existence of God.
Like most children of the early '90s, I learned about The Seventh Seal thanks to a little art house classic called Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. Ten years or so later, I was able to discover and appreciate the Bergman classic, released by the Criterion Collection on new-fangled DVD. This is a film that many, I'm sure, have yet to discover but already know thanks to an absurd amount of well-established parodies. Don't worry, I won't list them.
Despite the seemingly instant elevation of The Seventh Seal from 1950s art house import to cinema-defining classic to absurd parody of itself, Ingmar Bergman's Middle Age morality play absolutely holds up. It remains as timeless and influential as Citizen Kane or The Seven Samurai. From the opening scene of Block challenging Death to a game of chess (what guts!) to the iconic hillside dance at the end of the film, you will find yourself caught on a suspenseful road trip through a very depressing chapter in Western Civilization.
Block is not only fighting for his life, but for what he hopes will be his salvation. Bergman presents the audience with a hero who is torn between the religion that he was raised in (and went to war for), and the stark, cynical reality of the world he returned to. With every move he makes on the chess board, he staves off Death in hopes of somehow discovering the meaning of life. His traveling companion, the Sancho-esque Jöns, doesn't help matters much, as his agnosticism is arrogantly swung about like a broad sword. Block is able to find some sense of peace, however, once he meets the Jof, Mia, and their toddler Mikael; this family of traveling actors are your archetypical God-fearing salt of the Earth. They allow Block to experience something truly good and loving amidst the chaos of the Middle Ages. The questions Bergman raises are heavy, but he doesn't presume to know the answers.
From a cinematic standpoint, The Seventh Seal is nothing short of a masterpiece in filmmaking: the high-contrast lighting is rich and dramatic; Bergman's composition is so precise that just about ever scene feels like a still photo; and the screenplay is a perfect balance of bleak Swedish philosophy and absurd humor. Just wait until you see Death sawing down a tree. If you have yet to see this landmark movie, there's no better time than with this new release.
Criterion presents The Seventh Seal with a newly restored, high definition transfer, ensuring this is the best this movie has looked on home video. The picture is dense and detailed, despite its relatively high contrast, and there's just the right amount of film grain left to make it all work. The audio sounds equally good, despite only coming in Dolby Digital Mono. You can listen to the original Swedish track with improved English subtitles, or you can listen to what sounds like a rather old English dub.
A new transfer in and of itself may not justify a double-dip in the Criterion catalogue, but the sheer amount of supplements in this two-disc release definitely helps. On the first disc, as with the previous release, you'll find a commentary track by Bergman expert Peter Cowie. This time around, Cowie has also recorded a new 11-minute afterword. Also included on the first disc is an archival audio interview with Max von Sidow, a brief tribute by Woody Allen recorded in 1989, and a theatrical trailer.
The second disc contains the 86-minute documentary Bergman Island. The film, by documentarian Marie Nyreröd, features candid interviews with Bergman three years before his death in 2007. Much of the documentary is set in Bergman's secluded home on the island Fårö, where he spent the last years of his life alone. Bergman Island is a fascinating look at the director's life, philosophy, and work habits; although there isn't much time spent on The Seventh Seal. For Bergman buffs, this documentary alone is worth the price of admission -- in fact, Criterion is also releasing this film separately. Accompanying the movie is Bergman 101, a 25-minute summary of Bergman's career and style. If there is any complaint, at all, about this second disc, it's that both supplements are more about the overall career of Bergman, rather than this specific movie. Then again, that's a minor complaint given the excellent quality of these extras.
The Criterion Collection has a long history of producing some of the finest DVDs on the market. While the original release of The Seventh Seal may have been nifty back in the day, this is without a doubt the definitive version to own. This new release is not only the best looking version of the film to date, but it also provides a great introduction to Bergman's career.
A must see.
Review content copyright © 2009 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Swedish)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1957
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Interview
* Woody Allen Tribute