The Greatest films of all time: 10. Persona (1966) (Sweden)

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Introduction:

In the history of cinema and in the love for this medium and creativity nobody stands above Ingmar Bergman, except perhaps Charles Chaplin, though Bergman has even superseded this legend of cinema in productivity and variety. While many great filmmakers before him followed one line of work or stuck in the same style, subject or ideology, e.g. John Ford in westerns, Kurosawa in samurai, and Chaplin in his tramp, Bergman followed variety not just in films, but in the theatre and radio. His early fixation with religious/existential topics and the question of God in relation to humans, affected by his religious upbringing under his father as a Lutheran minister, soon changed to addressing earthy and daily life humans’ issues. This matured and flourished in content and techniques to an optimum level beyond his previous works, even his earlier masterpieces in “Persona”.

Bergman: A Cinematic Icon

Bergman started career in film, at age 24 in 1944 writing the script for and assisted in directing the film “Torment” with Alf Sjoberg that brought him a success, so to begin his own filmmaking. For the next 10 years, Bergman experimented on several films until in 1955, the “Smiles of a Summer Night” that was recognized worldwide and nominated for Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Since then this iconic filmmaker had been so productive, creating some years more than one film, such as in 1957 when he made two masterpieces, “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries”, both won numerous awards across the globe and are in the list of the greatest films of all time here and elsewhere. Bergman’s fixation with the religious and God subjects continued into 1960’s with other great films such as the trilogy of “Through a Glass Darkly”, “Winter Lights”, and “Silence”, though the last one started taking off to the more earthy human’s issues and was hailed and critiqued for its sexual content. It was not until “Persona” that Bergman really flourished and showed his talent in filmmaking not limited to existential matters, but he is a master of analyzing the human’s psyche as he did somewhat before in the “Wild Strawberries”.

Persona: A Personal Exploration of the Psyche and Mind  

In an interview and explanation about the film, Bergman has mentioned the prompt to make the film was an experience of split or space out in his mind, cognition, or feeling of non-existence that he had briefly while in hospital due to a sickness before the film. It is futile often to ask explanation of a masterpiece from any creators in any art formats and Bergman is not an exception as the film explores more the psyche of two women, a nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) and an actress patient Elisabet Volger (Liv Ullmann) who could be and in fact the duality of one person.

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The film’s Opening scene is one of the most unusual though chilling, beautiful and thoughtful visual short cut shots that have ever been imposed on the silver screen. A series of film reel shots are followed by a black spider (in Bergman’s vocabulary meaning God or the monster side of God) then a hand crucifixion, and killing a lamb (silencing) before the shot of a young boy wakes up in a hospital bed or morgue. The boy sees a large screen with blurry images of two women, Alma and Elisabet that he tries to feel them by touch of his hands. The title credits after is intercepted with flashing images of these two women. In the next scene, the sister nurse Alma enters the master nurse office where she is offered a new task of nursing a famous stage actress, Elisabet who has gone silent or mute recently.

In the first encounter with Elisabet, Alma realizing her patient’s mental power surfacing as silence, tries to reject the job, but soon when the two connect, she takes on the task. In order to break the silence of Elisabet, Alma starts telling about herself with the hope of breaking her patient’s silence. While still in the hospital room, Elisabet is shown watching news on TV about the cruelty of the Vietnam war at the time, civilians being killed on the street and a monk blazing himself on fire, that frightens and saddens her with tears, showing her sensitive human nature. In the next scene, nurse Alma reading a recieved letter for Elisabet from her husband asking her if he had done any wrong to have caused her silence. There’s a photo of their son with the letter that when Alma shows it to Elisabet, she tears it up in anger. This shows another side to the personality of Elisabet, being cold blooded towards her own son and husband.

The hospital doctor after analyzing Elisabet’s silence being a passive reaction to a productive life that at the end discovered to be meaningless, she sends her along with Alma to her house by the sea for recuperation. At the sea house, the two women not as a patient and a nurse, but two companions, walking on the beach, in the woods, fishing, cooking, picking mushrooms and Alma reading books to Elisabet who remains silent all through. What Alma reads to her patient, e.g. “dread of our earthly life…and our worn out hope of a divine salvation” is in fact Bergman’s return to his rhetoric existential questions of our existence on earth and its meaning and the question of God, salvation, etc. He cleverly interjects his own philosophy or his own doubt and confusion of the reason for our being with his atheist conclusion that our loneliness and silence (e.g. Elisabet’s) are passive aggressive reactions to such helpless and meaningless existence.

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The whole film is almost a monologue of Alma telling and confessing her life stories to Elisabet who is silently listening, while their relationship through empathy and understanding grows. They eat, drink and smoke together while caressing at times, getting closer with Alma receiving Elisabet like a sister she never had. She confesses to her that one day in summer when in their cottage by the lake, when her husband was in town, she alone went to the beach, meeting a young woman lying naked down there. She undresses and lies down beside her, when they notice two teenage boys were watching them up above behind the bushes. One of the boys approached the girl, Katarina who undresses him and pushes him inside of her. Alma in temptation invited the boy to go to her as well and she gets such a sexual pleasure and climax, not once but more that she had never experienced before. They both had sex with the other boy as well with more climaxes and pleasures. In the evening when Alma’s husband returned, after dinner and drinking wine, they have sex that she never enjoyed as much before. After the confession and while Elisabet still silently listening, Alma’s morality kicks in and in tears asking why she cannot be in peace with a moment of joy that she had one day in life: “Oh, Lord, it’s so silly”! Then she wonders if one could have two personalities.

Often during this strange monologue relationship, it’s not clear who’s the patient and who’s the nurse. Soon the introspective psychoanalysis of the film discloses that in fact the two women are one or two personalities in one. “ I think I could change myself into you if I tried”, Alma tells Elisabet. After more such dialogues, while Alma exhausted with her head on the table, she hears the voice of Elisabet for the first time telling her to go to bed or she would fall asleep at the table! Not believing what she had heard, she thinks that she had heard her own thought aloud and this time she talks to herself to go to bed. While in bed, Elisabet enters her bedroom that Alma notices and two women in each other’s arms become one, caressing and the two faces fuse to one like in an internal revealing mirror. This very popular scenery image of the film, often shows on the film’s poster and video, is the ultimate conclusion of the content of the film that Bergman skillfully and thoughtfully depicts it in a visual beauty.

The next day while both women at the beach, Alma asking Elisabet if she has spoken to her last night that she denies with nodding. The following day Elisabet gives Alma a letter in an unclosed envelope that she has written to the hospital’s doctor to mail when she goes to the town. On the road Alma curious of what’s written in the letter from her mysterious patient who has not heard a word yet and she’s dying to learn about her, stops and reads the letter. She gets shocked and upset that Elisabet has written about her to the doctor and has even disclosed her personal secret of orgy on the beach with the teenage boys.

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In the next morning when both dressed in black swimsuits, Alma sunbathing outside, sweeps some broken glasses but leaves behind a large piece deliberately that later on Elisabet steps on and cuts her foot. After a few fast different shots of sufferings and else like the opening scene, both are seen together on the beach, dressed in similar black outfits under the sun reading. Alma confronts Elisabet who has betrayed her and blown up her personal secrets with anger and harsh words. Elisabet gets infuriated and slabs and scratches her face. Elisabet runs away, but Alma chasing her asking for her forgiveness of insulting her, but at no avail, so she calls her being selfish and proud.

In the evening while in bed, Elisabet being upset and sad that their relationship has grown sour, finds a piece of photo of the Polish Jews captured by Nazis at a Ghetto, in a book of Alma. While Elisabet fallen sleep in bed, Alma enters her room and caresses her when she hears a man’s voice outside calling Elisabet. She goes out and sees a man who looks blind and keeps calling her Elisabet while she keeps repeating in response that she is not Elisabet and her name is Alma! But the man being certain addressing her as his wife, and assuring her that he has no demands and that he has been explained of her condition by the doctor, and he understands if she loves someone else! At this time Elisabet arrives to the scene from behind Alma and listens to the conversation and finally takes Alma’s hands to touch her husband’s face.

Alma gets emotional and empathic after touching his face, assuring him that she loves him, then hugs and kisses him. The husband affected by the sudden emotional change in his wife, says that the efforts of trying to understand each other and that they are both lonely frightened children is important. Alma asks the husband to tell their little boy that his mom will be better and back home soon. Here the couple are shown in the background with the close up face of Elisabet in the forefront. The husband tells Alma that he loves her so tenderly that’s unbearable, and she responds that she will live on his tenderness, while turning back looking at Elisabet who’s silently listening. While the couple in bed, Alma tells the husband how good a lover he is, while the man still calling her Elisabet, while Elisabet all the time present in the background silently. Finally Alma bursts in tears asking “Leave me alone! It’s shameful, all of it”. “ I’m cold, rotten and indifferent. It’s all lies and imitation”.

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In the next scene, Elisabet dressed in black, sitting at a table is approached from behind by Alma who’s dressed the same, asking her what she has hid under her hand, that’s the photo of her son that she had previously tore up. Alma asks and insists her the need to talk about her son that she keeps refusing by nodding. In this rare cinematic scene, for a long few minutes, first Alma confronts Elisabet of her lack of motherliness and love for her son whose birth had taken away her career’s liberty. During this harsh confrontation, only Elisabet’s face as a silent listener is shown while being battered by the critical words of Alma. The same scene of criticical word by word is repeated again, but this time showing only Alma as the talker. After these two same back to back scenes, Alma again emotional coming to the realization and confession that she is sister Alma and not Elisabet.

Here again in a rare cinematic experiment before the era of digitalism, the half face of Alma with the half face of Elisabet under half light and shadow is fused into one face. This scene that Bergman cut two faces shots and superimposed on each other as one face, shocked both Bibi Andersen and Liv Ulman who took them a long time at the editing room to recognize as two faces juxtaposed. Alma goes on claiming that she loves and is capable of loving, but she hasn’t! In the next scene while Elisabet still sitting at the table, Alma like in the beginning of the film arrives in the nursing uniform and telling her that she will not be like her as she changes all the time. After a long silent staring at each other, Alma gets infuriated again, hitting the table several times with anger. She keeps screaming that all these “I, you, we and us are unbearable pain and nausea”. Elisabet still a silent listener, cuts her wrist to bleed then sucks the blood when Alma more furious attacks her with all her anger, slapping her many times.

In the scene before the final, Alma in nursing uniform enters Elisabet’s room in the hospital, picking her up in her arms tenderly and asks her to repeat after her saying “nothing, nothing, no nothing…there. That’s right. That’s how it should be”. Then both faces are shown again caressing each other side by side. In the final scene, Elisabet seen at the beach house packing to leave, when shortly after Alma is shown packing the patio chairs and cushions, looking in the mirror, seeing herself and Elisabet, then leaving the cottage on a bus.

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A Cinematic Masterpiece:

With Persona, Bergman reached his ultimate level of his cinematic experience. In this film beyond his previous films, Bergman applies the magic of filmography, cinematography with its haunting and horrifying music score to convey his ideology. This combination makes the film more than a psychological drama, but horror at times and the subject of many analyses, debates and interpretations. The subject of personal identity, duality and multiple personalities mixed with existentialism of his previous films, womanhood, motherhood, love and insanity all are depicted through the relationship of two main characters of the film who are in fact one. But the film like Elisabet who remains silent to the end, stays also silent to any interpretations, so that it has been called the “Mount Everest of cinematic analysis” in that whatever it’s said could be contradicted.

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As Bergman has admitted himself, he has gone “as far he I could go in Persona” and later on in “Cries and Whispers” in cinematic experiment to “touch the wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover”. With Persona, Bergman as he has confessed “saved my life…If I had not found the strength to make that film, I would probably have been all washed up.” saved his cinematic life from fixation on religious subject. The most written-about film after “Citizen Kane”, Persona has been and is still the subject of analysis and interpretation of not only film critics and other filmmakers, but film scholars and academics. Despite all different interpretations including psychoanalytical division between the conscious and subconscious drawn by some, Bergman himself wanted the film to “be felt rather than understood”.

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It has been written so much about Persona that one cannot recite them all in one paper. The film while a subject of accolade by almost all unanimously, at the same time has been “a difficult, frustrating film” to interpret and critic for Roger Ebert, or “makes some tough intellectual demands” for the famous New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. At the same time the film has been called “one of the 20th century’s major artistic works”, “a tactile visual intimacy”, “the most pretentious movies of all time”, a “wholly subjective exercise”, “haunting, poetic”, and “complicated, mysterious and artistic psychological drama”. Alma description of her orgy has been labeled as “one of the rare truly erotic sequences in movie history”, and the film’s island setting has been praised, and Bibi Andersson’s performance has been hailed as a “tour de force”. In brief what Jean-Luc Godard strived to do with his radical experimentation in cinema, meaninglessly with futility, Bergman achieved with more radicalism, while meaningful and absorbing to the mind and senses with Persona.

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Conclusion:

In closing remarks “Persona” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality: “Persona” is original in its conception, filmography, cinematography and the use of music score all to convey the ideology of the film, still an ongoing subject of many different analysis, interpretations and essays. The film was not only original for the cinema as a whole, it was also original for Bergman himself who while departed from his old existential theme, interjected Jungian psychology and more into his line of work.
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “Persona” is multitude in the application of reflections, splitting the screen, use of light and shadows, mirror, close ups, radical filmography, breaking many classis cinematic rules and reality narrative styles. As Bergman himself revealed “The human face is the great subject of the cinema. Everything is there”, he made us to appreciate more the persona or as Jung has said the mask that we all wear and the roles that we all play in life. The sound and music score of the film in discordance (e.g. dripping, phone ringing) added horror and malevolent feeling to the film conveyed a semantic meaning. Beyond the superb acting of Bibi Andersson in monologue, the silent acting of Liv Ullmann was cinematically powerful and omniscient, conveyed well the power of silence that Bergman had shown before in his previous films as the silence of God.
  3. Impact Factor: The influence of “Persona” has been on so many other filmmakers and the future films that reciting all would be beyond this paper. In a short list, it has been an influence on Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Jean-Luc Godard, David Lynch, and Francis Ford Coppola to name a few. The film’s influence has also been beyond cinema and as an example a few stage adaptations of the film have been produced. After the release of the film in Sweden, a group of critics formed a “Persona Cult” that spread beyond that country in a year.  
  4. Survival: “Persona” has survived well to this very day in being on many lists of the greatest films of all time and still being a subject of debate, interpretation, analysis, critics and introspection.
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