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.
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.
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.