A young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson), is put in charge of looking after Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), An actress who suddenly went mute during a performance. Elisabet appears to be perfectly healthy in all aspects; so the doctor has allowed for Alma and Elisabeth to stay at her secluded beach cottage. During the stay Alma reveals personal information about herself while Elisabet listens, seemingly they become best friends . As the days go by Alma slowly starts to notice similarities between her and Elisabet, and knowingly tries to prevent it after learning the type of person Elisabet can be.
The film immediately grabs your attention through it’s opening mesmerizing sequences; a roll of film on the projector starts followed by a quick erect penis, scenes from an old silent comedy, grotesque imagery and other images which lead up to the iconic shot of the boy’s hand over the two woman’s faces on projection. This first 6 minutes was unpleasant to watch and this is all before the opening credits and can I tell you it doesn’t ease up there but increases it’s intensity. This prologue can be viewed as experimentation or even a nightmare considering dreams resonate deep within the films of Bergman; nevertheless the prologue sets you up for certain moments that lie within the film and a startling yet absolutely brilliant moment when Bergman breaks the fourth wall similarly to this prologue’s introduction.
A fascinating aspect of Persona is how minimalist it may seem at times, because when explaining what takes place in the story further backs this notion because essentially it’s two people away at a secluded cottage that have various conversations than part ways. However though many components make this film quite special, a massive contributor is the dialogue that is given and delivered by Bibi Andersson. As a result of Ullmann’s character not speaking, the monologues given by Andersson are reminiscent of personal therapy session, as she recounts past sins, fears, and hopes for a secure future. Andersson brings compassion and empathy through these words, I’ve heard the phrase ‘tour de force’ thrown around actors before, but this is one instance where it’s completely applicable. Liv Ullman character brings a lot to this film as well despite being mute. The nonchalant expressions that quickly shift into this menacing looks, and then into a look of curiosity; These facial and body expressions transcend words. I think John Hardy said it best in this quote featured on Roger Ebert’s review of this film; “How this pretentious movie manages to not be pretentious at all is one of the great accomplishments of ‘Persona,”
The extremely short run time of 83 minutes is accompanied by not only incredible acting but some of the most breathtaking black and white ever images shot on celluloid. It’s strange to think that if it were not for the resemblances of Andersson and Ullmann, and the unfortunate illness that Bergman fell upon; this film may not even have been made. Thankfully the idea came about and Bergman brought legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist back on board continuing their collaborations with each other. The cinematography here is exceptional; the lighting and clothing that was used in the film brought out stark contrast between the blacks and whites, providing some haunting images, in an already dark film. I watched the film on it’s blu ray transfer for the first time, last night and I was blown away by how incredibly detailed it was; but even more shocking, hardly if any dust lingering around the images. Persona is truly a beautiful film to watch and even more so when moments of silence fill the scene or as classical song brings an equal moment of powerful moments.
For a film that is filled with tons of memorable moments, the two that tops that list is Alma’s provocative story that took place on a beach one day and when the faces merge together. This monologue given by Alma reveals a lot about a private torment that she has had to deal with, and continues to deal with, but the power of the imagery given in this story is unlike any other. It’s told so fluidly by Bibi Andersson you would believe you watched a clear flashback to this beach and the story of which led to inner conflict with herself and external conflict husband. Secondly, the moment the faces merge together is quite startling because you finally have a face to face comparison that truly shows how similar they look. There are many other things that catch the eye, like what may be dream sequences towards the end, the cameo from Bergman and Nykvist themselves, and another favorite of mine Elisabet watching the self- immolation.
The performances that are played in life is also a great theme in this film, “I understand that you’re not speaking or moving, that you’ve turned this apathy into a fantastic setup. I understand and admire you. I think you should play this part until it’s played out, until it’s no longer interesting. Then you can drop it just as you eventually drop all your other roles”. Our mental capacities are grand enough to allow for people to be mentally strong enough to commit to such a strict desire. It’s never explained clearly why she has decided to go mute, but there are different instances that can be inferred to find a possible reason. I would like to think that along with her son that she finds repulsive, Elisabet chooses to take a step back from the world and the problems in her life to possible find solace but inadvertently falls into a place where she’s viewing the world’s problems rather then facing her own demons which can be heard in the monologue given by Alma near the end of the film. The problems of the world that could be seen within the film would be the self-immolation of the monks in Vietnam, the picture of the boy in a Jewish Ghetto being arrested, and studying Alma.
Cinema is an art like no other. Seamlessly blending all these aspects of art and life itself into a single film is an achievement itself. Persona pushes those boundaries even further with this avant-garde esque film yet still containing a strong narrative and coherency. A personal favorite of mine that only becomes more enjoyable as you watch the lives of these two women unfold. Many, many things can be said about Bergman’s masterpiece, but I think Bergman says it the best himself “Today I feel that in Persona—and later in Cries and Whispers—I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.”
My Rating: ★★★★★ / ★★★★★
Dir. Ingmar Bergman
IMDb 8.2 – Rotten Tomatoes 93%
Nominated BAFTA – Best Foreign Actress
Won NSFC Award – Best Film, Actress, Director
“He’s calling again. I’ll find out what he wants from us. Out here, far away in our loneliness.”