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The Seventh Seal DVD

January 2008 SITE MAP   SEARCH

The Seventh Seal
cast: Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Gunnel Lindblom, and Bertil Anderberg

director: Ingmar Bergman

92 minutes (PG) 1957
Tartan blu-ray retail

RATING: 10/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Endlessly referenced, discussed and applauded, The Seventh Seal (aka: Det Sjunde inseglet) is the sort of work about which, at this late stage in the critical calendar, fresh meaningful commentary is virtually impossible. Some have seen it as marking the end of the director's apprenticeship as a filmmaker - his previous film being the sparkling comedy Smiles On A Summer Night (aka: Sommarnattens Leende, 1955) - and the first of the characteristic nine he directed between 1957 and 1964, dealing with what has been described 'the God quest'.

All of these films, indirectly or directly, ask the same questions as to whether man can really know the deity in a meaningful way. None offer an easy answer, or even answers at all. The title of the present one refers to God's book of secrets. Sealed by seven seals, only after the breaking of the last one will the secret of life, God's great secret, be revealed and, appropriately, the film opens and closes with the relevant passage from Revelations. It was certainly a critical and box office success, one unequalled by anything Bergman had done before. The Seventh Seal won the special jury prize at Cannes and, arguably, created a sensation in the film world not seen since Rashomon.

Deriving from an earlier dramatic sketch 'Wood Painting' written by Bergman for drama students, The Seventh Seal was made on a very low budget in 35 days, with the help of his increasingly familiar repertory company of actors. In it, Antonius Blok (Max von Sydow), a 14th century knight, returns home with his earthly, sensual squire J´┐Żns (Gunnar Björnstrand) after a decade of crusading. Amidst the plague and guilt-stricken homeland in which he finds himself the knight finds a personal crisis of faith and cannot pray. And, at the height of this turmoil, he is confronted by the personification of Death, to whom he challenges a game of chess, forestalling the inevitable.

In contrast to the knight's fearful predicament are Joff (Nils Poppe) a poor travelling entertainer and his beautiful young wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) whose response to the biggest questions of existence are much less complicated. It is only with these unpretentious people that the knight really finds solace. In one memorable scene out of a film with many of them, Blok sits on the grass eating wild strawberries and drinking milk with Mia and her group - a moment that has been taken by some critics as representing a private Eucharist, the force of which momentarily redeems the knight from his doubts. By contrast, a harangue in the film from a monk, or a procession of flagellants, can be seen as personifying man's degeneration to self-hatred - especially when confronted by the blind forces of disaster.

Bergman's feelings about his 'themed' films in recent years, especially as he grew more and cynical towards faith and the presumed existence of a listening God, were mixed, and he ended by calling such works as The Virgin Spring, for instance, 'bogus'. But The Seventh Seal, compelling and obsessive as it is, remains starkly memorable, not least for the iconic chess game played out between man and nemesis, as well as the final chain-dance of Death - the late exemption from which of Joff and Mia arguably proves Blok's saving grace.

This brief outline of Bergman's allegorical masterpiece makes it seem considerably heavier going that it is. In fact, The Seventh Seal, although a serious and heartfelt personal work of art, is never pretentious and abstractedly theological enough to prove distracting (such criticisms can, arguably, be levelled more readily at such recent, and shallower, films such as Dogma), while its graphicness and dramatic power survive intact down the years. If some of the stately theatricality of it all might seem a little dated, well, that's not enough to deter a wholehearted recommendation for one of the classics of world cinema, as well as one of the director's greatest achievements.

Tartan's blu-ray disc, marking the film's 50th anniversary although a good result, is as one might expect. Films that were not originally shot in high definition, of older provenance, typically end up only being marginally improved and for the most benefit of larger screens. But there is no doubt that as far as The Seventh Seal is concerned, it has never looked better, with sharper visual contrasts over the regular DVD version for instance, as well as the advantages of reworked subtitle presentation. There are some worthy extras too, notably quarter of an hour or so of on-set footage from the film, some of which will be familiar from those who saw the recent broadcast of two Scandinavian sourced documentaries about the late director and his work, shown on UK TV some months back. There's also Bergman's 14-minute short Karin's Face (aka: Karins Ansikte, 1984) with optional English subtitles, and using pictures from the late director's personal photo album, notably those of his mother Karin. Not top drawer work perhaps, but worth seeing. There's also an English dub track for the main feature for those who fancy such a thing.

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