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DVD Review: The Seventh Seal (The Criterion Collection)

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The symbolic dynamism of The Seventh Seal remains undiminished 52 years after it’s initial release. Criterion’s excellent DVD reissue of this classic is a welcome addition to the Ingmar Bergman library.

The title The Seventh Seal refers to a verse from the Book Of Revelation from The Bible which is used at the beginning of the film and near the end.

For those unfamiliar with the basic allegorical story, it concerns a medieval hnight (Max Von Sydow) returning home after The Crusades. Accompanied by his loyal squire (Gunnar Björnstrand), the knight’s journey back to plague ravaged Sweden is fraught with incident.

The most famous of these is the Knight’s chess match with Death, played out on a desolate beach. The image of their game has become iconic in the world of film, with good reason. The scene is riveting.

In Bergman’s 2003 introduction, he explains that his motivation for writing the film was to confront his own fear of death.

The Knight’s deal with Death is that if he wins, he gets to live. And as long as he staves off defeat he remains alive. This buys himself, and as it turns out, others valuable time.

As The Seventh Seal progresses it becomes clear that the Knight’s quest is a spiritual one. His questions are answered in a most unexpected way at the conclusion.

Besides this outstanding mythological story, there is much more to the film. The acting by all, but especially Von Sydow, Björnstrand, and Bergman’s lover at the time, Bibi Andersson are outstanding. The cinematography by Gunnar Fischer is simply stunning. Criterion’s high definition digital transfer brings out this element out in spectacular fashion.

The two-disc set is loaded with extras, most significantly the 83 minute documentary Bergman Island. Filmed in 2003, Marie Nyreröd’s film features fascinating interviews with the auteur, who holds nothing back.

Film critic Peter Cowie’s Bergman 101 is another fine addition, with short synopses of every one of Bergman’s films. Another notable extra comes from the one and only Woody Allen, who discusses the enormous impact Bergman has had on his own career.

There is also an audio interview with Max Von Sydow and the original trailer for The Seventh Seal. I especially enjoyed the beautiful 24-page booklet that is included, with fabulous stills and an incisive essay by critic Gary Giddins.

The Seventh Seal is presented in it’s original format, black and white with subtitles. Criterion have put together a brilliant two-disc package here, treating this truly classic film with the class it deserves.

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