The cover copy on the case of A Sunday in Hell describes it as "arguably the best film ever made about professional cycling," and it's no exaggeration. A Sunday in Hell is that rare and delightful creature, a documentary that offers a perceptive and interesting introduction to cycling for viewers who are new to the sport, while at the same time providing a great viewing experience for those who are already fans.
The "hell" in question is the one-day Paris-Roubaix race, one of the "spring classics" on the professional cycling calendar. As with the major stage races like the Tour de France, the classics are team affairs, with each professional team sending their star along with supporting riders whose job is to help the team leader win (though if the leader drops out of the race or clearly is having a bad day, the supporting riders can take their own shot at victory). But unlike the Tour de France or Giro d'Italia, which are three-week-long races, each classic race is only one day, one single stage, so for the riders there's no holding back and saving their strength for another day.
Paris-Roubaix is the most famous and usually the most dramatic of the spring classics. The latter portion of the race takes place over "pavé": narrow, bumpily-cobbled roads that become choked with dust on dry days and treacherously slick and muddy on rainy days... hence the nickname "the hell of the north" that gives the film its title. For the riders it's a challenge simply to keep going without puncturing a tire or crashing on the difficult cobbled roads, which means that the top riders are at the same disadvantage as the rest of the pack... and there's always the chance of a daring, well-timed breakaway that can bring victory to a lesser-known rider. All in all, it's an exciting race, both in the 1976 edition that's filmed in A Sunday in Hell, and in more recent editions that I've seen on VHS in the race coverage from World Cycling Productions.
The film itself, directed by Jørgen Leth, is a polished and well-crafted documentary that succeeds in capturing not just the events of the 1976 edition of Paris-Roubaix, but also the whole atmosphere of a professional bicycle race. The film begins with the introduction of the major contenders for victory: Merckx, De Vlaeminck (the previous year's winner), Martens, and Moser, each with their supporting riders who are determined to help their team leader cross the finish line first. This opening material is one of the parts of A Sunday in Hell that make it highly accessible to viewers who are new to cycling, because it lets the viewer know who are the major "characters" to watch out for.
As the film progresses, it takes the viewer through the pre-race preparations by the riders, to the start of the race, to the events of the race itself, and finally to its exciting finale. Because this is a documentary, not specifically race coverage, we're given an overview of the whole experience of the race, including from the perspective of spectators and race organizers; however, the main focus of the film is rightfully on the exciting events of the race itself. The narrator does an excellent job of describing what's going on, and, more importantly, explaining the reasons behind what the riders are doing. There's a great deal of information and insights about professional bicycle racing that is incorporated into the film. By the end of the 95-minute documentary, even a viewer who was completely unfamiliar with cycling will have a great sense of what bicycle racing is all about, and why it's such an exciting sport, while racing fans will also have gotten a great sense of the personalities, strategies, and racing styles of some of cycling's greatest riders in one of cycling's most famous races.
The image quality of A Sunday in Hell is reasonably good, considering that it's an older piece that makes use mostly of broadcast TV footage. It's presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The picture has a generally soft and grainy look to it, and there are many small flecks and speckles in the print. However, there aren't any major print flaws like scratches, and the noise level in the print is low.
Overall, it looks like the film has been minimally processed for the transfer to DVD, but in any case it certainly looks much better than my VHS copy, and I was pleased to see the lack of edge enhancement. Colors are generally bright and vivid, without any bleeding at the edges, and the contrast is satisfactory as well.
There's no need for surround sound on a film like this, so the Dolby 2.0 track is more than sufficient. Small environmental noises like the bicycles whirring by, the spectators cheering, and the cars beeping their horns all come across clearly without interfering with the voiceover.
The soundtrack as a whole has a soft, slightly muffled quality to it, which is really the only thing holding it back from a higher rating. The sound is generally clean and free from distortion. The background music is balanced nicely with the narration, with the music volume rising up when the narrator pauses, and fading appropriately into the background when the voiceover resumes.
A Sunday in Hell has an attractive menu screen... but unfortunately it lacks chapter stops, consisting of one giant chapter. There are no special features included on the disc.
A Sunday in Hell is a must-buy for all cycling fans, and it's also the perfect starting place if you're curious about the sport. It's worth noting that unlike World Cycling Productions' other historical cycling DVDs, A Sunday in Hell stands alone on this disc, with no other program included. But don't let that fool you into thinking that this DVD isn't as good a value as the others: as the best of the historical cycling films, A Sunday in Hell stands very well on its own merits. If you can only choose one cycling DVD, then A Sunday in Hell is the one to buy.
But I'll be willing to bet that after you watch this DVD, you'll want more... and so you can move happily on to WCP's other historical cycling productions on DVD. Then, like me, you'll be craving more... I can tell you that WCP has some fabulous stuff on VHS, including Paris-Roubaix, other spring classics, the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia, and the Vuelta a España as well. While you're waiting for all of those to be transferred to DVD, you can pop A Sunday in Hell back in for another viewing... it's sure to please on the second or third viewing as much (or even more) than it did on the first watching.