Persona (1966)

f15de-persona1“Persona: The image or personality that a person presents to other people” ~ Merriam-Webster Dictionary 

Ingmar Bergman’s Persona got me thinking. About what I’m not quite sure, but it did leave me confused and utterly perplexed which I suppose is a good thing. Since I am a fan of comparisons, I will go out on a limb and say I felt like I was watching the cross between L’Avventura and Repulsion. Persona is certainly befuddling psychologically and it has the crispest, most pristine black and white cinematography I have seen in a long time, courtesy of Sven Nykvist. 

The opening sequences in the hospital are noticeably minimalist with an accentuated sterile environment. The close-ups feel reminiscent of The Passion of Joan of Arc and the highly dramatic and unnerving score  sends twinges down our spine. To top it off, the takes can be excruciatingly long, focusing on an inert face or a solemn figure crouching in a doorway. Silence is just as prevalent as dialogue.

At its core, Bergman’s film is an examination of individual characters in space. Alma (Bibbi Andersson) is the young sprightly nurse who is called in to take care of catatonic actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann). Their interactions quickly move from the plain hospital room to the seaside cottage loaned out to Mrs. Vogler for her recovery.

What begins as attendant watching over patient soon evolves into a vulnerable woman finding a silent foil to confide in. The Persona is changing. 

All of a sudden roles are reversed and when Alma discovers a letter Elisabet sent away to the administrator, things are never the same. She feels betrayed learning that the actress has been analyzing her in silence. All that’s left is bitterness and anger towards her mute companion. No words come out of her mouth. Only blank stairs and more silence. She remains strangely calm in juxtaposition with the agitated Alma who becomes more and more tormented. But it is at this point we have lost much of our grip on reality. The lines, as well as the images, are often blurred and warped.

Persona takes on some brazenly edgy topics with frankness that is often abrasive. A repeated monologue by Alma follows the discovery of a recovered photo of Elisabet’s little boy. In the sequence, Alma speaks the words on Vogler’s mind and we are forced to labor painfully over her words yet another time. In many ways, Alma becomes the stand in or understudy for the actress and the role is far from elegant.

By the time the film came to its conclusion I hardly knew what to think. It elicited powerful feelings and reactions of aching and apprehension. If nothing else Bergman certainly makes you think and his Persona is unquestionably a striking piece of cinematic art. He has the skill of riddling our minds like a Bunuel or even Godard. It’s powerful if not completely satisfying because we can never hope to fully understand it.  

4.5/5 Stars

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