The Criterion Collection is revered by film aficionados, but the general public is often oblivious to its charms. I have a healthy respect for a number of the films included in it. I’m a former film student. Breathless and Seven Samurai are some of the best films I’ve seen, and any of the entries from Federico Fellini are guaranteed to draw me in, particularly my personal favorite of the bunch, Nights of Cabiria.
But it’s with some trepidation that I admit that even though I studied these things at great length, many of the films in The Criterion Collection escape my knowledge even in a cursory manner.
I’ve decided to dive into the deep end of classic films that is The Criterion Collection. Let’s be clear: I’m not a film critic, just someone who loves watching and analyzing films as much as he possibly has time for.
I’ll rewind for just a moment. For those who don’t know, The Criterion Collection is a grouping of classic films fantastically presented on DVD, Blu-Ray, and online streaming. The packages are known for their excellent film-to-digital transfers as well as exhaustive special features and commentaries.
But, first and foremost, these are great films. Most of these movies would not be categorized as mainstream, and almost none of them are blockbusters. Instead there are many films that are either twenty-plus years old, in languages other than English, or simply made outside of the traditional studio system.
Many prejudge these films as being esoteric or boring, or simply dismiss them due to the things we already mentioned, but there’s likely something interesting or cinematically relevant about every movie in the catalog.
So let’s begin with a film about the end, The Seventh Seal, directed and written by Ingmar Bergman.
Bergman is among the select few whose work is considered part of the film canon, if there is such a singular thing. After my first foray into his work with the also seminal Wild Strawberries, I decided to continue exploring his work with this similarly well-regarded film.
The film opens with several minutes sans dialogue, filled only with the sound of the ocean and the visual of our protagonist, the knight, Antonius Block, waking up on a beach. I was quickly reminded I was watching an older film by the sound design, which dropped the sound effect of the waves completely during any shot that involved dialogue. Once past this admittedly slow start I was then quickly pulled in by the appearance of Death, in the traditional black–robed anthropomorphic form, on the beach. Death begins conversing with Block, who—not ready for death—challenges him to a game of chess.
And so begins a scene parodied repeatedly in other works as the quintessential esoteric foreign film moment, as Block and Death play chess on the beach with Block’s life hanging in the balance.
The scenes between these two characters are the most riveting in the film, the stakes are high, the characters themselves are instantly intriguing, and their verbal sparring is enjoyably witty, even though it carries its sense of foreboding. I wish I could say I gravitated toward any of the scenes in the film that did not include these two characters.
As the story opens up, we meet a small acting troupe that includes a husband, wife, and child, as well as the troupe leader. These characters, as well as the knight and his squire, enter a town overshadowed by the effects of the plague. Fear is subtly strewn throughout the film’s events excellently, like when a woman is persecuted for being satanic or when a group of monks flagellate themselves to protect themselves from god’s wrath. The vast majority of these scenes serve to show off this fear in the community or to build up our attachment to the characters.
It can be difficult to be drawn in when the story meanders from character to character. Bergman shows us that both he and his protagonist truly care about the other townspeople who attach themselves to Block. I unfortunately was not able to latch on to these supporting characters in the same way. Certainly I cared about Jof and Mia’s fate, but this was largely because they represented the most traditional form of family in the film, and proved to be a loving couple.
The film also provides some excellent in-depth philosophical conversations. In a confessional, Block complains about his fear of the end. He’s frustrated with the failure of God to show himself to the world, rather than requiring faith. These types of conversations are spread throughout the film, and often reveal character nicely while simply being an eloquent statement about the confusions Bergman may be experiencing himself. In this particular case, we even witness the plot progressing despite the esoteric nature of the conversation, as it is revealed to Block that he is speaking to death, and he has revealed his strategy to him unknowingly.
The Seventh Seal is not an easy film to watch. It treads dark subject matter and it does so at an deliberate pace. The characters are not the most lovable or fully developed—there are simply too many with too little screen time to truly form a bond.
Nevertheless, the film is excellently put together, with beautiful imagery (particularly in the opening and final scenes, when it matters most), and an undercurrent of great philosophical observation. For those with some extra patience and a hunger for deep thought, The Seventh Seal is definitely a good selection, but if you’re in the mood for some pure entertainment, it might be best to save it for another night.
Film Aficionado Points*: 6.5
*(Number of film buff brownie points won for having seen it. 1 being Gigli; 10 being Citizen Kane.)