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Ingmar Bergman
Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Nils Poppe, Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Inga Gill, Maud Hansson, Inga Landgré
Writing Credits:
Ingmar Bergman

Ingmar Bergman's best-known movie, The Seventh Seal is a masterfully executed medieval morality play in which a knight, disillusioned after his return from the Crusades, challenges Death to a game of chess in an effort to delay the hour of his demise. As the game progresses and the knight and his squire journey toward home, the former is reassured of the existence of human decency and spirituality in an often brutal world through his encounter with a family of traveling players. This highly symbolic elegy on mortality and religion is one of the most respected classics of contemporary cinema.

Box Office:
$150 thousand.

Rated PG

Fullscreen 1.33:1
Swedish Monaural
English Dubbed Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 96 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 1/26/1999

• Audio Commentary with Film Historian Peter Cowie
• “Ingmar Bergman: An Illustrated Filmography”
• Trailer
• Restoration Demonstration
• Booklet


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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The Seventh Seal: Criterion Collection (1957)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 11, 2009)

If you've read many of my reviews, you've probably figured out that I'm not much of one for artier films. Too many movies of that sort tend to try so hard to be deep and meaningful that they simply come across as pretentious and silly.

My opinions in that realm didn't bode well for my first encounter with Ingmar Bergman through the Criterion DVD of The Seventh Seal. After all, Bergman's pretty much the person around whom all the "art house" movie stereotypes revolve. His style has been (affectionately?) lampooned repeatedly and his name is synonymous with "dark and foreboding movies". I was willing to give the flick a shot, but I didn't expect much.

Much to my surprise, however, I found The Seventh Seal to be a rather entertaining and enjoyable film. I'd prefer not to spend much time in this review discussing the implications and meanings of the various parts of the film. While The Seventh Seal clearly is a movie that opens itself up for a tremendous amount of introspection, enough has been written on that subject in regard to it that I don't feel terribly compelled to add many opinions of my own.

Suffice it to say that The Seventh Seal essentially attempts to find and/or define the meaning of life. Somewhat surprisingly, I didn't think the movie really seemed all that "deep." In the end, Bergman basically implies that "love is all you need" and that the simple unity of a man, a woman and a child offer the greatest hope and joy in life. Plus, Death's kind of a jerk.

Anyway, while The Seventh Seal certainly offers itself up for all the dissection you might like, it also functions quite well as a basic piece of entertainment. Oh, it's all very ponderous stuff - the plague, the Crusades, women being burned at the stake, people flogging themselves, vain actors eating chicken - but Bergman does an excellent job of keeping the movie from becoming too somber. At various times, comic relief is inserted into the story, but he does not do so in terribly obvious ways.

Somehow Bergman manages to have his cake and eat it too. The Seventh Seal moves seamlessly between light comedy - such as the Cyrano-esque battle of wits between a blacksmith and an actor - and dramatic scenes such as the aforementioned floggings, et al.

As in the case of something like Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, I normally don't care for comic relief. Too few movies have the guts to go all out and totally submerge the audience in a dark world that I greatly enjoy it when it happens. I don't feel any need to have the tension lightened.

I enjoyed the lighter moments of The Seventh Seal not because I felt any need to "take a breather" but instead because they simply made the movie more interesting. While its heavy on issues, The Seventh Seal is light on plot; the only real story involves the knight's search for the meaning of life. I guess that's enough, but the tale unfolds largely as a series of random encounters. The humorous moments make the journey more interesting and they add zest to the characters so that the whole bunch doesn't seem just like a morose bunch of sots.

Lesson learned: Bergman movies can be introspective and entertaining all at the same time. Second surprising lesson learned: if The Seventh Seal can be taken as historically accurate, I kind of wish I'd been alive and in Sweden during the Middle Ages. Yeah, I would have had to contend with the plague and the Crusades and all sorts of various persecution and problems, but the women were babes! Virtually every woman in The Seventh Seal who's under the age of 50 is quite the looker.

And I'll bet even the older ones were hot in their time! Geez, hanging out in those medieval Swedish villages must have been just like lounging at the Playboy mansion. Anyway, while I can't say that The Seventh Seal will ever be at the top of my "favorite movies" list, I nonetheless found it to be compelling and interesting. It’s definitely more accessible than its reputation might lead you to believe.

The DVD Grades: Picture B-/ Audio B- (Swedish) D- (English)/ Bonus C

The Seventh Seal appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though not without some issues, the transfer usually looked good.

Few issues affected sharpness. Some wider shots were a smidgen soft, but they didn’t appear with consistency. The majority of the film demonstrated nice clarity and definition. Unfortunately, the flick could be somewhat unstable. It looked a bit jittery at times, and I also noticed light shimmering and jaggies. No issues with edge enhancement materialized, though.

Blacks looked deep and firm, while shadows were quite strong. Low-light shots demonstrated good clarity, and contrast appeared solid. Source flaws were reasonably minor for an older movie. I noticed a smattering of specks and marks as well as a prominent hair or two. Nonetheless, these remained within acceptable levels. A little more work might get the film to “A” level, but as it stood, this was a perfectly acceptable “B-” transfer.

As you may have already noticed, I issued two different sound ratings for The Seventh Seal. This is because it offers two different audio tracks: one from the original Swedish monaural and another from the English monaural dub. One might assume that the two tracks would sound essentially the same, but one would assume very incorrectly.

For the most part the Swedish mix sounded good. It seemed clean and relatively rich, considering its age. Dialogue, music and effects all came across as fairly natural and crisp, and decent low-end appeared for the smattering of louder bits.

My only complaint really stemmed from the nature of the source recordings. Clearly much – if not all – of the dialogue was looped, and this gave the proceedings an odd, artificial air. Nonetheless, the soundtrack replicated the original mix well.

The English track, however, was a disaster. It seemed exceedingly harsh and flat, with tremendous amounts of background pops and clicks and general noise. Overall, the English dialogue was usually comprehendible, but it could be tough at times. The English mix would be a disappointment under any circumstances, but the great contrast between it and the very nice Swedish track further exacerbated its poor quality. This was a nearly unlistenable mix that became utterly useless.

However, I will say that I think the subtitles of The Seventh Seal lost a lot in their translations. Since the only word of Swedish I know is "meatballs," I have no clue if the subtitles or the English dub remain closer to the original dialogue. However, I'd be willing to bet that the dub translates the speech more accurately. Although the DVD's case indicates that they're "improved", the subtitles seemed exceedingly basic; they appeared to offer the gist of the dialogue but without anything extra. The dub, however, seemed to provide more varied and more complete wordplay and I think they probably came closer to delivering Bergman's messages. Too bad the poor quality of the English meant the dubbed track was exceedingly difficult to tolerate.

In terms of extras, the main feature here is an audio commentary from film and Bergman historian Peter Cowie. He offers a running, screen-specific track that looks at the opening credits, inspirations and influences, cast and performances, historical references, and a few production elements.

Cowie occasionally offers good tidbits, but overall his chat doesn’t soar. For one, he often simply narrates the movie; some good introspection comes along for the ride, but the basic storytelling appears too frequently. I’d like more about the film’s creation and less reiteration of the tale and characters. Cowie gives us enough to make the track listenable, but it doesn’t go beyond that.

Other than the commentary, the DVD offers little in the way of extras. We also get an Illustrated Biography of Bergman. This includes a wide variety of photos plus two film clips. The latter pieces - from Wild Strawberries and The Magician - also feature commentary from Cowie. This supplement provides a perfunctory recap of Bergman's life and his films that’s neither insightful nor special. Still, it's worth a look.

Other than that, the main remaining supplements come from some nice booklet liner notes from Cowie and the original Swedish trailer. Think film ads that reveal far too much of the story are a recent problem? Think again. This trailer essentially gives away the whole point of the movie. It's an odd little piece of work.

For a look at the work put into the transfer, we find a three-minute and 20-second Restoration Demonstration. Text tells of the efforts put into the DVD and we see visual comparisons between this version and its prior state. These features always feel a little self-congratulatory, but it’s kind of interesting to see the improvements.

The disc also includes color bars. Why do we need color bars for a black and white movie?

While I expected a ponderous, pretentious piece from The Seventh Seal, I found something lighter and more engaging. “Lighter” doesn’t mean “fluffy”, of course, but the film manages to work on a number of levels. The DVD provides pretty good picture and audio; just avoid the awful English dub. The extras add a few decent tidbits but aren’t exceptional. Overall, this is a reasonably positive release for a classic film.

To rate this film visit the Blu-Ray Edition review of the THE SEVENTH SEAL: CRITERION COLLECTION

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