Arguably the most famous of Ingmar Bergman’s films and certainly his most iconic, The Seventh Seal is Bergman at his most allegorical. Max von Sydow, young and blond and heroic, is a disillusioned knight returned from the Crusades in a state of spiritual desperation: his faith has been shaken by senseless death and terrible cruelty he’s seen perpetrated in the name of a silent God. Coming home to find his own country ravaged by the Black Plague doesn’t help matters much and as he searches for some sign of a benevolent God, he plays a game of chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot), personified as a cloaked figure with a grim white face. Gunnar Björnstrand is his skeptical squire, suspicious of religion that plays upon and encourages the blind fears of a superstitious population and cynical about a culture that values human life so cheaply. The landscape in the opening scenes mirrors the harsh reality of his existence: rocky, cold, with jagged cliffs that look torn out of the land, scrub grass hills with scraggly trees.
In the face of such heavy themes and harsh landscapes it’s easy to forget how cinematographer Gunnar Fischer brings the world alive with his painterly photography and overlook the warmth and hope shining through the doom. The sun comes out for a traveling juggler with a wife and child and the knight finds something worth dying for in this loving family. The beauty and the intensity of the film has been lost to the reputation over the years. Watching it again brings it back to life.
The Seventh Seal was one of Criterion’s initial DVD releases. This new special edition, on DVD and Blu-ray, is beautifully mastered from a a 2006 film restoration. It’s never looked so vivid on home video (especially the Blu-ray) and the clarity and intensity of the image grounds the themes in a palpable, solid world, giving the weight of life on the line to the philosophy discussed in the film. The new editions are supplemented by Marie Nyreröd’s feature-length 2006 documentary Bergman Island (featuring candid interviews with the director conducted four years before he died and Bergman 101, a 35-minute video essay on Bergman’s life and career by Bergman scholar Peter Cowie (illustrated by stills and film clips), plus the commentary recorded by Cowie for the original release and other supplements.
L’important c’est d’aimer (aka The Important Thing is to Love), the first French feature by Polish expatriate Andrzej Zulawski, debuts on American home video courtesy a gorgeous DVD from Mondo Vision, which includes commentary by and a 16-minute video interview with Zulawksi (the former in English, the latter in French with subtitles) and a elegantly designed digipak. The film itself is:
a romantic drama of frustrated desires, frail relationships and explosive passions directed with understated intimacy. Romy Schneider strips away the glamour to play an aging actress with a failed career and won a Cesar for her emotionally fragile performance. Italian leading man Fabio Testi is the photographer who wants more than the impersonal affair she offers and Klaus Kinski as at his most charming as a flamboyant actor.