Released: October 18, 1966 (Sweden)
Director: Ingmar Bergman; Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman; Cinematography: Sven Nykvist; Studio: Svensk Filmindustri; Producer: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Bibi Andersson (Alma), Liv Ullmann (Elisabeth Vogler), Margaretha Krook (Doctor), Gunnar Bjornstrand (Mr. Vogler), Jorgen Lindstrom (The Boy)
My initial reaction to seeing Ingmar Bergman’s legendary Persona was unlike anything that I have ever experienced. By the time it ended, I was unsure whether I could even put together a coherent theory on exactly what took place in the film and the reasons why it happened. Was the plot meant to be taken literally, with the viewer simply being given a vision into the proceedings? Are these dreams or hallucinations being displayed? Are there hidden aspects to the film that I overlooked on this first viewing? It was mystifying. The only thing I was certain of was the fact that I loved it. In retrospect, I think that the puzzling nature of the story was precisely what made the film so appealing to me, and it is without question that this is the quality that continually brings me back to it.
This is the second straight year where my selection is a film that detractors often lampoon with the description of pretentious. In reading recent reevaluations, I have even seen those that had previously been admirers of the film argue that the film has aged poorly. I can be somewhat sympathetic to those who view it this way. Anytime an enigmatic film attains the level of praise that Persona has over the years, such a reaction is unavoidable. And I suppose that even while being a huge fan of the film, I can even acknowledge the fact that the pretentious criticism has some truth in it. There is no denying that Bergman attempts to tackle heavy topics and make bold artistic statements in the process. What keeps it from falling into the dreaded “pretentious” arena for me is the fact that Bergman is skilled enough as both a writer and director to pull it off.
The movie opens with a dazzling and surreal opening sequence that ends with the famed shot of a young boy staring at, and reaching his hand toward, the blurry image of a woman’s face. Seeing this for the first time, as a Bergman neophyte, was quite the wakeup call. While it meant nothing to me at the time, this eerie shot figures prominently in many popular interpretations of the story and is a proper introduction to the surreal tone that the film adopts. The story then begins in earnest, and if taken at the most surface of levels, is actually straightforward. A young actress has suddenly and inexplicably stopped speaking in the middle of a performance and has not spoken to anyone since. Nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) is charged with caring for the actress, Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann). The Doctor of the hospital suggests that to better care for Elisabeth that Alma should take her to a seaside house and observe her in hopes of leading her to recovery. At first apprehensive about such an undertaken, eventually Alma travels to stay alone with Elisabeth at the resort.
Once at the beach house, roles and perceptions begin to shift. Reality and fantasy intermingle, leaving explanations to the viewer as to what is real and what is imagined. Elisabeth remains silent throughout the stay, while Alma talks incessantly, to the point of pushing herself toward her own mental breakdown. She begins to share stories that while not shockingly graphic, are striking enough to make the audience squirm alongside the silent Elisabeth. The recounting of her sexual encounter on a beach and the subsequent abortion that resulted, truly is unsettling. The relationship between nurse and patient is also called into question when Alma reads a letter that Elisabeth has written, telling how she enjoys being able to observe her nurse. Elisabeth reveals the stories that Alma has told her and says that she thinks the nurse may be falling in love with her. Is Elisabeth truly ill or is she playing Alma in hopes of gaining knowledge of her own?
Bergman and Nykvist shoot the film in such a way as to further muddy the truth concerning the relationship between the two women. The physical resemblance between the two is obvious, and the legendary director-cinematographer duo create shots that make one (at least in my case) begin to wonder if they are not two personalities of the same person. Continually you see images where the faces of the women seem to mesh together. There are instances where Alma sees Elisabeth walking the grounds of the property, asks her about it shortly thereafter, only to have Elisabeth deny that it ever took place. Then there is the time when Elisabeth finally speaks, only to deny that she did. Is Elisabeth lying? Did the event actually happen? Again, it’s to you to decide, as Bergman never tells you. The connection between Alma and Elisabeth grows even more bizarre when the blind Mr. Vogler returns to see his wife, only to have Alma approach him and pretend to be Elisabeth. After feeling the face and seemingly being satisfied that it is indeed his wife, the two sleep together without hesitation. One would think that a blind man would be able to realize, through touch, whether or not the woman he is getting intimate with is actually his wife. So, it appears to lend credence to the thought that Alma and Elisabeth are one and the same.
Any interpretation made about the film seems to have holes in it. The split personality theory is the most satisfactory to me, but it is not entirely impossible to view the story quite literally. Many knowledgeable film critics and historians have had difficulty coming to grips with a completely coherent interpretation, so I do not at all feel embarrassed for not having one myself. After many viewings, I’m not sure that I understand any more about the meanings and interpretations than I did the first time – and at this point, I’m not sure that I even care. The realization that I have come to in regards to Persona is that it is a visual masterpiece and a thought-provoking meditation on the concepts of identity and reality. Does this sound like an overly vague analysis? It is, but it is the best that I can settle on. Rather than getting caught up in trying to uncover precisely what Bergman wished to say in making the film, I now simply put it on and enjoy it for its artistry. The overall production is so arresting that everything else is secondary to me.
Other Contenders for 1966: A trio of films line up behind Persona on my list of favorites for 1966. Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers is a unique film in the way that much footage is so realistic that it looks like a documentary. It is an engrossing story and one that still resonates today in the “terrorist vs. freedom fighter” conflict taking place in locales around the world. I am also a big fan of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. It is a film that has resulted in many spin-offs and remakes, but Antonioni’s film still manages to remain mysterious. And finally, Sergio Leone’s popular The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It’s not my favorite Leone but I still really like it.
Some of the other films worth mentioning, but were never really in contention are: Au hazard Balthazar (Robert Bresson), El Dorado (Howard Hawks), Le deuxième soufflé (Jean-Pierre Melville) and A Man for All Seasons (Fred Zinnemann).