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By Brad Cook | June 28, 2009

How many degrees of separation lie between Ingmar Bergman and Comedy Central? Just one: The opening to Stephen Colbert’s health news segment, in which he cheats while playing seaside chess with Death, is an homage to the opening scene of “The Seventh Seal.” The link is apt in more ways than one, because Bergman’s masterwork contains plenty of humor, despite its reputation as a dour film.

True, Max von Sydow’s Antonius Block, a knight who has returned from the Crusades disillusioned and in search of meaning in life, is a stone-faced man who tries to keep Death at bay through an ongoing chess match, but the supporting cast provides much to smile about. And, of course, that’s the message of the film: We should all appreciate the simple pleasures of life while we can, because we never know when it will be finished, to paraphrase one of the movie’s final lines.

This Criterion release features a remastered print that shines; compare it against the “Seventh Seal” clips that show up elsewhere on these discs to see how well it has been restored. The company also ported over Peter Cowie’s excellent 1987 commentary, which, like most Criterion commentaries I’ve heard, is more of a film class lecture: He delves into everything from influences in Bergman’s background to the movie’s overt symbolism. Cowie returned for a new 10-minute afterword that sums up how he feels about both the director and the movie, in light of Bergman’s passing in 2007.

Disc one also features a brief introduction filmed by the director in 2003, a 20-minute archival audio interview with von Sydow, the theatrical trailer, an improved subtitle translation (whenever they say that, I always wonder why they didn’t get it right the first time), and a tribute to Bergman filmed in 1989 by Woody Allen for Turner Classic Movies.

The centerpiece of disc two is the 83-minute documentary “Bergman Island,” in which journalist Marie Nyrerod delves deep into not only the director’s career but also his difficult childhood, during which his mother often pushed away his attempts at affection and his father sometimes beat him. It was released separately by Criterion in 2006 – that disc also included the 35-minute biography “Bergman 101,” narrated by Cowie, that was carried over to this title as well.

Finally, Criterion inserted a nice booklet with an essay by film critic Gary Giddins, something they typically do when they release a classic film. I’ve previously referred to these DVDs as “film school in a box,” and this title does not disappoint in that department. We should all be thankful that Criterion continues to occupy such a vital niche in the world of cinema.

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