- Jeff Beck
The Seventh Seal: Bergman's Medieval Classic Comes to 4K (Criterion 4K/Blu-ray)
Renowned Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman made a multitude of films throughout his prolific career that are considered classics, including "Fanny and Alexander," "Cries and Whispers," "Persona," and "Through a Glass Darkly," with three of his films winning the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (while he received nine other nominations). However, what many consider to be his most famous and popular work is a little film he made before all of these called "The Seventh Seal," which touches on many fascinating themes in an equally-intriguing setting. As usual, with Criterion upgrading the film into its 4K club, there's no better time to go back and explore why this somewhat dark & haunting work has endured for over 65 years.
The film begins as a knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), and his squire, Jons (Gunnar Björnstrand), are returning home from the Crusades to find that the Black Death is ravaging the country. Shortly after, Death (Bengt Ekerot) appears to claim Block, but the latter challenges him to a chess match in order to stay alive during the duration of the game (which is played throughout the film). As Block and Jons continue on their journey, they meet a variety of characters, including actors Jof (Nils Poppe), his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), and Jonas (Erik Strandmark), a blacksmith named Plog (Åke Fridell) who can't find his wife, and a thief named Raval (Bertil Anderberg). Through these interactions, lives, views, and hopes are explored in a time when life was extremely precarious.
It would be fair to say that there's not a whole lot that happens plot-wise in "The Seventh Seal," though I suppose you could say that the main storyline that ties it all together is Block playing chess with Death while trying to do one last meaningful act with his life. However, it seems more accurate to say that the film plays out more like a series of episodes as Block and Jons encounter different characters, all of whom are involved in their own little situations (Jof and Mia are just trying to get by with their child, Plog is trying to find his wife who's run off, Raval proves to be a very dangerous person to other characters, etc.).
It's through these episodes that Bergman weaves the fascinating themes mentioned earlier. Perhaps the biggest of these involves Block's desire for proof of God's existence, a need to know that there's something more, a desire that he tries to fulfill when he encounters a woman who is to be burned alive as a witch in league with the devil. Bergman was obviously no stranger to religious themes throughout his career, as he would revisit them again in his "Silence of God" trilogy, as well as in other works. Here they act as an intriguing backdrop for the main character's personal struggles as he seeks to help others with theirs.
Obviously the film touches on the theme of death as well (after all, he is a main character), but it also touches upon love. In one of the film's most remarkable exchanges, Jons is discussing the very topic with Plog, covering their thoughts on women and comparing love to a plague, but ending with the rather poignant "If everything is imperfect in this world, love is perfect in its imperfection." Rather interesting in how, among the bleaker themes of the film, Bergman opts to link something as normally uplifting as love to the film's mostly darker tone.
With these themes, explored through an ensemble of characters that are eclectic, compelling, and memorable, it gives the viewer plenty to chew on, revealing a film that may not have much happening on the surface, but has plenty of pithy & alluring subject matter underneath. It's hardly a wonder why the film is consider Bergman's magnum opus, or at least one of his greatest triumphs, one that has stood the test of time for many decades, and will continue to do so for many more.
"The Seventh Seal" makes its UHD debut in a gorgeous 4K digital restoration that no doubt makes the film look the best it has since its original release in 1957. Likewise, the uncompressed monaural soundtrack is marvelous, giving you the dialogue & score in perfectly clear quality. Overall, in typical Criterion fashion, the film has received outstanding treatment, once again breathing new life into yet another classic.
Audio Commentary with Film Scholar Peter Cowie
Introduction by Ingmar Bergman (3 Minutes)
Bergman Island (83 Minutes)
Afterward by Peter Cowie (11 Minutes)
Max von Sydow Audio Interview (20 Minutes)
Woody Allen on Ingmar Bergman (7 Minutes)
Bergman 101 (35 Minutes)
Criterion's release includes a hearty selection of extras, most involving Bergman expert Peter Cowie, including a feature commentary, selections from an interview with Max von Sydow, and a video filmography on Bergman's career. Definitely plenty of material here to please any fan of Bergman's work.
Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" stands as one of the writer/director's greatest triumphs thanks to its exploration of intriguing themes that are woven into a tapestry of fascinating & compelling characters. It may not appear to have much occurring on the surface, but beneath it, you'll find more than enough to make it a stimulating & memorable experience.
Available on Criterion 4K/Blu-ray starting tomorrow.
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