As Jeffrey Kauffman alluded to in his review of The Seventh Seal, this film is a great way to introduce new viewers to Ingmar Bergman; for Bergman devotees, it's a wonderful reminder of his work, a gem from one of cinema's greats.
In the past, fellow film enthusiasts have recommended I watch Bergman's films, but I've shied away from them. His work has seemed too abstract, or intellectual for my comprehension. However, now that I've sampled what many people consider to be the best of Bergman, I feel like a bit of a junkie who looking for his next fix.
In the film, Antonious (Max Von Sydow, Victory), a medieval knight who has returned to his homeland from the Crusades, finds that the townspeople are dying in massive numbers from the plague. Needless to say, Death (Bengt Ekerot) has arrived to meet him, but Antonious challenges Death to a game of chess. Throughout the film, the chess game continues, and Antonious that sets the rules of the game; as long play continues, Antonious is spared. If he wins, he's set free.
The chess match, along with Antonious' spiritual beliefs are the main focus of the film; Antonious wonders about God's existence and stalls Death for more time so that he can see his wife before Death takes him. Since we all face Death eventually, Antonious' stalling efforts are not difficult to understand. The feelings of not having enough time and wondering if your personal affairs are in order are feelings that most of us would probably have.
Yet it's how Antonious deals with these final matters that make them powerful; he simply asks God for help. How many of us would do this today? During the film, Antonious' prayers to God go without answer, so when he runs into a woman who is going to be burned at the stake, he wants to know if God had spoken to her, so close to her death. Meanwhile the chess game continues, and Death knows that he'll see Antonious sooner or later. Antonious seems to realize that this stalling is just as futile as Death already realizes. His life has been full of experience, and toward the end of the film, makes the subtle gesture of distracting Death during his game so that a young couple can leave with their child.
Watching Von Sydow act at such a young age, with such desperation and urge for emotional closure, is fascinating. With a childlike manner, he exhibits the gamut of emotions, including hope. Speaking of children, after watching The Seventh Seal, I feel like one who's just seen the sun for the first time. The main theme surrounding Antonious and Death was far more intriguing than I was expecting, so much so that I may not do the film enough justice in my review. I want to see this movie again at various points in my life, to see how my opinions of it might have changed. I want to see the rest of the Bergman classics, to see how his thoughts on life and relationships have been influenced in his work, and how at those points in his life he viewed them. I want to see more Bergman. The Seventh Seal is my gateway drug.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Criterion created a new transfer for the film, and the AVC encoded 1.33:1 presentation is excellent. The image is in good shape for most of the film, and the film grain is present though hardly distracting. What stands out for me is the background depth; you can make out the village and the cliffs in Antonious' travels, and the facial detail is impressive, considering that the film is almost 60 years old. Criterion does a bang-up job on this old classic.
The original Swedish audio track is presented in an uncompressed format for all to enjoy. Dialogue is strong here, as are the score and smaller ambient effects. The track is so strong that it requires nothing in the way of user adjustment, so you can pick a level that's comfortable and go from there. Like the video, the audio has been remastered, and the subtitles have been improved for this release as well.
Criterion has wisely retained the commentary with film historian Peter Cowie from the previous version, which is full of information, trivia and context for Bergman fans and fans of film. But they've also added a few nuggets of interest: the biggest one is Bergman Island (1:23:26), the 2006 Marie Nyrerod-produced documentary that focuses on Bergman his life on the isolated Swedish island of Faro. Bergman recounts what he likes about the island, saying that he can go days without talking to someone (this is after the death of his wife Ingrid). But he talks about his childhood and how those experiences have shaped him and his films. He reflects on some of the memorable films of his career and talks of his highs and lows. The feature also includes ton of film footage and behind the scenes work. He talks more about his life, his wives and children, and how those how his life as a husband and father is reflected in his work. He wraps up by, of course, discussing death and spirituality. It's an excellent documentary and worth double-dipping the disc on its own.
There's some additional extras too. "Bergman 101" (35:22) looks at Bergman's life and works in summary form and includes opinions and reflection by Cowie. There's film footage and stills of various points in Bergman's life, as well as a wealth of biographical information. He touches on some production trivia and information from many of his major films, and adds some context related to this films. It's quite a scholarly and educational piece and it's worthy of reviewing before anything else on this disc. Cowie also shares some audio interview excerpts he did with Von Sydow in 1988 where Von Sydow discusses why he wanted to be an actor, thoughts on his work with Bergman, and some interesting words on his place in American features.
Continuing to the smaller extras, Bergman and Nyrerod shot an introduction for the film for Swedish television (2:58), and this offerssome interesting thoughts by Bergman when it comes to watching his films. Cowie contributes an afterward for the film (10:33) which includes additional information that his commentary does not include, mostly because the information wasn't available at the time. In it, Cowie discusses what the film to him personally and his opinion on why Bergman's work seems to transcend traditional criticism, before closing with some interesting thoughts on Bergman since his death. Director Woody Allen shares an appreciation of Bergman's films, done for Turner Classic Movies (7:13), which looks at particular Bergman films and why Bergman's work was so important to both the cinematic landscape and to Allen personally. The film's trailer (2:38) wraps things up.
Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal has ruminations on life and death that will stay with you long after you have watched the film. The messages are powerful. The fact that Criterion has not only revisited one of its earliest library titles but has given it a treatment worthy of a king (or knight, as the case may be), makes this a no-brainer. In addition, those who own the earlier copy should double-dip without reservation.