Criterion's transfer for The Seventh Seal on Blu-ray is stunning, folks. Simply stunning. Not only is this the best looking version of Bergman's film that I have ever seen, it is also one of the very best black-and-white 1080p transfers that I have seen thus far on the format.
Keeping the film's original 1.33:1 aspect, square-boxed on BD, Criterion have restored the print with sensational results. Immediately, you can see the original grain, rock-steady and robust blacks, crisp whites and gloriously accurate contrast levels between. Damage simply doesn't seem to rear its head in anything more than those unavoidable little shadows that occasionally undulate in a portion of the screen, and the film looks as though it was made yesterday. DNR, if it has been applied, has been impeccably respectful to the source.
As with the label's high definition transfers of The 400 Blows, The Third Man and The Wages Of Fear, detail is utterly superb. Almost every shot has been skilfully composed and the image seen here captures each one with a genuine vividness and a clean delineation. There is some edge enhancement but it is not the least bit detrimental. Otherwise, sharp lines and swift contrast provide supreme demarcation and the breathtaking imagery of the architecture and the settings, such as the cliff-top meadows, the haunted forest, the clearing in which the poor condemned girl is to be executed, the interior of Jof's covered wagon and village street that suffers the Procession of Flagellation is presented with a detail that is often revelatory. The eagle hanging against the glowering sky, the frescos freshly painted upon the church walls, the actors in their makeup and those painstakingly lensed branches, twigs and leaves seen against the sky or the moon have a stark clarity that certainly consigns any previous transfer to the bin.
We can see the patterns in the Block's chain-mail and the glistening of those tears that are forever threatening to well up in his eyes. The chess pieces and the playing board offer up a more refined image, too. But look at the depth of the picture when Jons sets off the investigate the ghost town, those forlorn and overgrown shacks standing proud and deep within the frame, impressive shadow, texture and detail all at a premium. Facial details are exceptionally fine, too. The image allows plenty of close detail of the cracks in lips, scratchy stubble, wispy eyebrows, Jons' nasty looking scar and the gorgeous complexion on the girl he rescues.
The blanket of grain never looks intrusive, even if it does seem a little more overt than Tartan's UK Blu-ray transfer. Shadow progression is excellent. Blacks are thick and strong, fall-off to grey is natural and smooth. Some whites appear quite hot, but these tend to occupy whitened walls that have been caught in the sunlight so, rather like we've seen with the transfer for The Wages Of Fear (reviewed separately) only to an appreciably lesser degree, it looks natural and quite pleasing, the black and white image coming across as genuinely reflective of the atmospheric conditions of many of the scenes, when Bergman has not opted to focus on emotional mood, that is.
A terrific transfer that makes you realise just how innately beautiful and textured black and white photography truly is.
The original Swedish track is presented in PCM Uncompressed mono and it is clear that as much attention has been bestowed upon it as the video transfer. The track has been cleaned and restored, removing the overwhelming majority of pops, cracks, hiss and other age-related damage. Dialogue is steady and evenly mixed and always clear and discernable. There is clarity to the singing - which may actually be a bad thing when you consider the raucous, discordant mess that Jof and Mia serenade the crowd with - and to the desolate, child-like wail of the witch as Block and Jons leave her after their first meeting. Listen out, also, for the wonderfully heart-warming chuckle of Jof's son, Mikhail, as he holds him aloft in the meadow. The sound of the sea and the storm that will assail the travellers later on are convincingly prioritised in the mix. Effects such as the moment when Jons slashes at Raval in the barn and the girl screams her reaction have a degree of positioning, and there is definitely some attention paid to the level of depth that we can discern. Even when Block swipes down the pieces on the chess board in a desperate decoy manoeuvre, the sound is authentic and clearly made of several components.
Eric Nordgren's evocative score may not be the most boisterous that you can imagine in terms of apocalyptic movies, and The Seventh Seal really is about the coming of the apocalypse, albeit an intimate portrayal of such grand calamity, but it has a certain presence and beauty that allows it to hover enigmatically in the mix and then swell whenever the time is right.
There is also an English dubbed track, but I couldn't bring myself to listen to it ... and nor should you.
Criterion release one of their most cherished films to Blu-ray with another eclectic roster of extra features. As is common with their discs, much of value is supplied, though a lot of it is generalised and pertaining to a bigger picture than just the movie in question.
First of all we get a terrific Audio Commentary from film scholar and Bergman devotee Peter Cowie, which was recorded for the Criterion Collection a good long time ago. Opinionated, informative and clearly thought-out, this is intellectual, anecdotal and highly prized. Very scene-specific and somewhat pretentious and awe-struck, he may be, but this is an extremely engaging and reflective study in the mysterious canopy of Bergman's “little” film. There is also a newly recorded 11-minute Afterword from Cowie to round off his chat-track, which can also be accessed separately from the menu.
Ingmar Bergman Introduction (3 mins)- journalist Marie Nyrerod recorded brief introductions from Ingmar Bergman, whilst in his own nifty screening room on Faro Island, to each of his movies that were shown as part of a series on Swedish TV, and this is how he led into The Seventh Seal.
Bergman Island (84 mins 1.78:1) once again comes courtesy of Marie Nyrerod, and is a great documentary looking back across the amazing career of Bergman. Originally a series of three frank and revealing features produced in 2004, this is the comprehensive full-length version that was edited together and released a couple of years later. Whilst thoroughly entertaining, it is only fair to point out that the second half digs deep into his personal life and is often incredibly frank and revealing. This feature-length documentary also gained its own separate release beyond this disc.
Max von Sydow Audio Interview has us in the company of Antonius Block, himself and steered by Peter Cowie over a series of several interviews that he granted the film scholar in 1988 for his book Max von Sydow: From “The Seventh Seal” to “Pele the Conqueror”. Here we are presented with twenty minutes of interesting excerpts culled from Cowie's own audiotapes.
Then we get Woody Allen on Bergman, in which the diminutive filmmaking genius discusses his passion for Bergman and his movies. Produced in 1998 this short piece for Turner Classic Movies runs for 8 minutes and is certainly worth your time.
Peter Cowie just hasn't said enough about Bergman, has he? Well, he's going to have another go here in Bergman 101 - a 36-minute documentary that, once again, takes us through the director's career on the big and the small screen. Boasting stills, behind-the-scenes photos, and illustrative film clips from Bergman's distinctive oeuvre, this should plug any gaps in the fans' appreciation of his themes, recurring motifs, and individual style.
Then we get the film's 3-minute trailer in 1080p.
The typical Criterion essay booklet, this time around, contains the brilliant piece on The Seventh Seal written by author Gary Giddings and entitled “There Go The Clowns”. Lavishly illustrated, this essay touches on some fine points and makes a great companion to the release.
I lamented the fact that the special features on Criterion's The Wages Of Fear didn't spend more time on the movie, itself, and, to a degree, the same can be said about a lot of the supplementary material here. But, with the commentary and a lot of anecdote and coverage sprinkled throughout the selection, this is actually a very well rounded package that will certainly please fans.
The Seventh Seal is as timeless as they come ... and possibly more relevant today than it has ever been before, with soldiers returning from unbeatable wars and facing both their innermost demons and the fall-out from religious conflict. Sydow unearths enormous sensitivity through the subtlest of performances and Bjornstrand grounds the ethereal importance of it all with earthy sweat and the most sardonic of working class purity. Death just does what Death does best, and it is fair to say that even he feels inclined to cheat once in a while. Bergman creates the art-house picture and the existential fantasy in one fell swoop, but also manages to carve out a critical gemstone of a movie in the process. There's not many black-and-white avant-garde sermons on “the meaning of it all” around that appeals just as much to the masses as it does the elite, but The Seventh Seal is certainly at the forefront of that meagre procession.
Unreservedly, the movie gets a 10 out of 10, and even if the extra features don't quite match up to it in quality, the sterling transfer that Criterion have bestowed upon Bergman's thought-provoking masterpiece ensure that this release, overall, receives top marks.
Very highly recommended indeed.
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