The 1960’s saw a shift in director Ingmar Bergman from unique story teller to the cinematic master he is considered today. Persona is Bergman’s human vision on display and asks the question “What is the appropriate response to the violence and turmoil that upends the roots of society?”
2 women who as mirror opposites to this question. One, Elisabet who toils in her silence as if not knowing the proper words to speak so she chooses not to speak at all. The other woman, Elisabet’s nurse Alma, who pours all of her guilt and sometimes doesn’t know when to stop. We explore and contrast these two lives and learn more about what they were and what they have become and really dive into humanity.
As a fair warning the movie does begin with a random montage of images including a dead goat, a person in a skelton suit, a tarantula and male genitals. Do not turn the movie off 2 minutes in because I promise you that the intro is not indicative of the rest of the film. I think Bergman used these scenes to shake up expectations and to keep the viewer from getting too comfortable or to show the everyday chaos and violence in life.
After the jarring intro the movie shifts to a hospital where we find Elisabet laying in silence and Alma is assigned to her care, to hopefully provoke her to speak again. After an unspecified amount of time the head of the hospital suggests that Elisabet and Alma spend some time at her summer house along the coast, in hopes that things will change. The two women head to the coast and spend time walking and enjoying each others company. Over time Alma starts revealing more and more about herself through intimate conversations with Elisabet. Speaking of a sexual escapade that she seemingly has lots of guilt about, while putting on a front that she is living the “good” life, you can tell that Alma has her demons. The two women grow closer to each other and the friendship begins to implode.
Bergman is a master of displaying this human emotion through a lens. His reliance on close-ups bring an intimacy to each scene, having you not just see but feel each turn and twist. Also on display is his grasp on scenery. One of the best scenes involves a long track shot as Alma chases down a distraught Elisabet along the varying coastline with the camera passing behind bushes. The rocky outcrops jutting in and out of frame and even in black and white, it never feels stark.
A piece of cinematic history without flash, bombast or explosions. A complex movement through human psyche and a spinning top of visuals that you are always waiting for it to stop moving so you can finally digest. This is a legendary filmmaker at his best
At this point I am going to talk about specific plot points in the movie so be warned, there are plenty of spoilers ahead.
A masterwork from Bergman means that there is a lot left up for the viewer to interpet. There is no spoon feeding nor concrete resolution and here is where I will dive in.
Bergman’s use of doubling shows that Alma might not have been there with Elisabet, but Elisabet was a reflection or part of her. A projection of all the guilt and anguish that she was holding inside. If you aren’t happy with the person that you are, make up an entirely new person where you can escape to. It brings up several questions from the film: Was Alma sent to the cottage to get some R & R and pull herself together? When we see Alma put her nurse outfit back on, is this when Alma has regained herself and is ready to return to life? We are given hints of this when the doctor who lends up her house says to Elisabet “I think you should play this part until its done”. Essentially saying to Alma’s alter ego, “only you can pull yourself out of this and you will know when it is time”.
Elisabet appears as the dark part of Alma’s guilt, the part that she doesn’t want to speak about so Elisabet remains in silence. We even see her try to inflict harm on the dark part of her guilt (most likely for exposing so much of her) as she leaves a broken piece of glass on the floor for Elisabet to step on. The more that is revealed by Alma (and through a letter from Elisabet) the more we see Alma break down. In the deepest sense, it seems that Alma just wants to be forgiven for her guilt. The picture of the son is what would have been her life with a son she never had. Elizabet is the life that could have been but even that life is not without emotion and anguish.
The scene with Mr. Vogler is about herforgiving herself and digging deep inside for relief and forgiveness. This point to the end of the film we see Alma coming together, cleaning and packing up. The final frames are show with the arrival of a bus as Alma awaits with her suitcase. The buss arrives and Alma boards but we do not see nor hear anything from Elisabet. Alma is saying “I’m not afraid of my past anymore, I am ready to move on and be whole again”. We are left to wonder, left to ponder and left to appreciate a great movie.