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THE SEVENTH SEAL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Max von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Nils Poppe, Bibi Andersson, Bengt Ekerot
Director:  Ingmar Bergman
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  96 Minutes
Release Date:  February 2, 1999

Film ****

There are classic films, and then there are those that loom like luminous milestones in the history of motion pictures. The Seventh Seal is one of the largest such monuments. It's an allegorical, deeply personal film that somehow transcends time to connect with each new generation that views it, and maintains its sense of wonder despite being one of the most spoofed films of all time.

Antonius Block (von Sydow) returns to Sweden after 10 years fighting in the crusades to find Death (Ekerot) waiting for him. He manages to buy a respite by challenging Death to a game of chess, and he hopes during this respite to find some satisfying answers to his deepest questions. We learn over the course of the film that Block is a man of misplaced idealism, a man who fought in a losing crusade on the side of Christianity only to question his own beliefs about God, religion, and what lies beyond the dark curtain of death.

The game is played in periodic spurts throughout the film. Death is very busy at that time in history, with the terrible plague sweeping all through Europe. Everyone is desperate to find an answer to the unstoppable terror, and we witness scenes of monks preaching about the wrath of God, poor souls marching through towns singing terrible chants and whipping themselves, and even a young girl about to be burned at the stake for being a witch. This was one of the most chaotic times in human history.

Meanwhile, Block and his squire Jons (Bjornstrand) travel through, until they hook up Mia and Jof (Andersson and Poppe), a couple of simple but happy travelling actors with their infant son. Block sees in them everything he lacks: peace, love, hope, and serenity. But he soon learns Death's mission is to take them all.

In a clumsy but effective move, Block uses the chess game to distract Death just long enough for the family to get away, but there is no such fortune for himself. Upon losing the game, Block asks Death, "At least now tell me your secrets." Death replies, "I have no secrets." "You know nothing?" Block asks. "I am unknowing," answers Death.

Any attempt to analyze this film will be futile and sadly incomplete without going into pages. This is just a brief summary; many of the film's depths I'll leave to you to explore. I would like to touch on a couple more things. One is the character of Jons, who, in a deeply spiritual and serious film, provides the movie with many touches of welcome humor with his cynical asides. He always reminds me of one of Jane Austen's men, like Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.

Secondly, I mentioned how much this film has seemed to grow in meaning from generation to generation. When the movie came out, it was during the beginnings of the Cold War, and many people read in this picture about death and the meaning of life a lot of the fear and uncertainty of global nuclear war. At the time the disc's commentary track was recorded, it was the late eighties, and the historian mentions linking the film to the fear of AIDS. Now, on the brink of the new millennium, the picture seems to reverberate with the same fear and paranoia associated with that.

The point of all this being, that's what separates a classic movie from a landmark, in my opinion--the ability to seem fresh and topical from one generation to the next keeps a film in the forefront of people's minds, analyzing it and discussing it, with each person drawing his or her own conclusions about what the film is supposed to mean. That's difficult to do, but Bergman has done it masterfully here.

Video ****

The quality of this transfer is simply superb. I have owned a couple of copies of this movie on VHS, and I have to say what Criterion did for this DVD transfer is nothing short of miraculous. It is cleaner, sharper and clearer than any that have gone before, even better than Criterion's own laser disc, according to many. The restoration demonstration will convince you:  this is the kind of treatment ALL classic films deserve on their DVD presentations.

Audio ***

The mono soundtrack is nice and clear on the original Swedish language track, but a little muddier on the English track, which sometimes happens when a film is dubbed by a company outside the original filmmaker's domain. This is the same English language version I saw on VHS. All in all, this represents the awesome potential for preserving our classics and seeing them better than ever on DVD.

Features ****

Some nice features too, including the original theatrical trailer (subtitled), an illustrated page by page write up of Bergman, including two clips from other films of his, a remarkable demonstration of the restoration, and a very good commentary track by historian Peter Cowie, one that I watched immediately following my initial viewing of the film by itself.

Summary:

There have been a few discs released that I have been able to point to and say, "this represents why I got into DVD in the first place." This is one of those films. You couldn't ask for better treatment on disc, or a more deserving film. This is an important staple of movie history, and one that deserves repeated viewings.

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