Written, directed, and produced by Ingmar Bergman
Cinematography by Sven Nykvist
Edited by Ulla Ryghe
Music by Lars Johan Werle
AB Svensk Filmindustri
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The basic story in Persona is fairly simple: a famous actress Elizabet (Liv Ullmann, below right) has suddenly and for no apparent reason stopped speaking. A young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson, below left) is charged with caring for Elizabet. That’s the simple version.
Yet the film opens with material that seemingly has nothing whatsoever to do with the set-up I’ve briefly described. In the opening we see darkness, the images of movie equipment, projectors, followed by flashes of images, some of them disturbing: a crucifixion, a tarantula, snapshots from old films, and a boy waking in a hospital room with corpses.
The majority of the film concerns Alma’s attempts to encourage Elizabet to speak, most of which occurs at the cottage of Alma’s hospital administrator. As Alma seeks to break down Elizabet’s barriers of silence, she begins revealing more and more of herself and in one scene details a very frank sexual encounter. I think for me this is the most important scene in the film. I don’t think it’s too much to say that this is one of the most erotic moments in cinema (although it’s all verbal), but it shows us that there’s a relationship developing, a sense of vulnerability as well as a seeking to understand and be understood.
The concept of knowing is crucial in Persona, as is identity. The two actresses share several physical characteristics and they often dress the same. Are Elizabet and Alma the same person? Can we really ever know another person? Can we even fully know ourselves?
More is revealed here, much more, and more still can be inferred. Persona is one of those films I can imagine people talking about in coffee shops for hours in the 60s. There’s so much to say about it in some ways, but many choose to say as little as possible. Some will tell you that it’s pretentious or overblown with avant-garde cliches, or a prime example of navel-gazing, all of which may be true. Yet I wonder about the way Bergman has chosen to “frame” the story with obvious cinematic references. He clearly wants us to know that “This is a movie,” but is that in order for us to recognize the artificiality of the story or to take us out of our own experiences?
I don’t know. I do know that I’ve gone back and forth about this film. When I finished it, I thought, “Okay, I’ve seen Persona. No need to see it again. What’s next?” Later in the day, I kept thinking about Elizabet and Alma and my own life, looking at their lives as mirrors of my own. (In fact, mirror and windows play a big part in Persona.) Maybe that’s something I should revisit. Maybe I’d learn something important about myself.
Photos: Criterion, The Movie Rat, Catalogo Hipster, Roger Ebert