Monday, June 15, 2009
One of the best films ever made, The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet), gets a rewarding bit of sprucing up for Criterion's new Blu-ray edition. This movie must have been a shock of the first order to audiences expecting a follow-up to Ingmar Bergman's previous film, Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). That romantic comedy was all the rage at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956. But what an about-face Bergman decided to do when he followed it with this highly theatrical and symbolic look at man's relationship with God and death. Set in medieval times, the movie follows Antonious Block (Max von Sydow), a disillusioned knight on his journey home from the Crusades. His travelling companion and squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), tries to leaven their weary spirits with gallows humor. But only the knight is aware of another shadowy figure making the journey with them... Death (Bengt Ekerot). Though Block has felt the spectre of Death throughout his trip home, it is only when confronted with the shadowy figure on a beach that he decides to challenge him to a game of chess, hoping to forestall his demise long enough to seek a better understanding of God and the afterlife in the interim. This central image drives Bergman's weighty philosophical examination of the metaphysical, as he admits in one of the most interesting special features ever to be included on a disc, Marie Nyreröd's documentary Bergman Island (2004). It is a fascinating three-part exercise that has the director candidly examining his work and his life (near the time of his death in 2007) from his home in the island of Fårö. The doc is substantial and significant enough that the film curators at Criterion decided to release it separately on DVD for those who do not get The Seventh Seal on Blu-ray. Still, you are really missing out if you don't take advantage of having the two on the same Blu-ray disc. Gunnar Fischer's cinematography for The Seventh Seal is the prime beneficiary of the Blu-ray's enhancements. Compare this version of Seal to its original release on Criterion back in 1999. As I keep reiterating on this site, there is no film with which one can appreciate the value of Blu-ray the best as a cinema classic like Seal. The richness of the black-and-white deep-focus photography—as in the sharp detailing of a bird's-eye shot of the coastal rocks through which Block and Jöns pass on their way home—is a revelation to viewers who've only seen the murkier versions of this shadowy film. Now, instead of one big blotchy black, there are gradations of grey within the shadows. For those who've never seen this classic of world cinema, Criterion's Blu-ray of The Seventh Seal is the way to do it. Don't confuse its grim, heavy subject with its running time, either. This movie is light on its feet, and with a 97-minute running time, moves pretty damn fast through some deep thoughts on humanity relative to its own extinction—which considering the world economic crisis, and North Korea's recent aggressive posturing, still manages to be relevant today. The Seventh Seal is available on Criterion Blu-ray and standard DVD tomorrow. Bergman Island is available on standard DVD tomorrow.