Every now and then, I come across a movie that leaves my brain in knots many days after watching. This is a state that brings me both rapture and turmoil since it is a feeling that I rarely get from films. Persona by Ingmar Bergman, came out in 1966 and is a complex drama that obscures the line of fantasy and reality. It left me wondering whether the two leading characters are separate individuals, or if one of them is just a physical manifestation of the same person. Hell, I still don’t know for sure.
The narrative of Persona centers around two women who are polar opposites in terms of personality. One of them is a young nurse named Alma (played by Bibi Anderson), who’s quite chatty and doesn’t know when to be quite at times. Then we have Elisabet (played by Liv Ullmann), a renowned stage actress who suddenly becomes silent and stops talking altogether after one of her practice performances goes awry. What’s strange though is that the doctors have said that Elisabet doesn’t suffer from any mental or physical-related illnesses, so no one is really sure why she no longer communicates verbally.
One forewarning regarding this movie is that Persona starts off with rather provocative imagery. It all happens quite fast, but you see a mutilated goat, a tarantula, an erect penis, someone’s hand getting viscerally nailed to a cross, a young boy in a morgue reaching out to a blurry projection screen of a woman. Pretty much the kind of things you’d see in a fever dream or a really bad nightmare. Personally, I really liked this bizarre introduction since it does a great job of subverting expectations, which gave the film an aura of mysticism throughout the entire duration by constantly keeping you on your toes. Although, I can totally understand why some people may get deterred from the very start since it is quite jarring. But, I’d encourage you to keep pushing onwards because the rest of the movie is more slow and meditative in terms of pacing and visuals (which isn’t a bad thing).
After the startling beginning sequence is over, the film transports us to the hospital where Elisabet has been staying. Alma is at first hesitant to take on the role of her caretaker when assigned for this task due to some doubts on whether she is experienced enough for this undertaking, but she decides to accept it. After conversing with her for some time during her given objective, Elisabet still hasn’t uttered a single word. Believing that a change of scenery may encourage the silent actress to start talking again, one of the head doctors allows Alma to take care of Elisabet at her summer house, that sits along a beautiful shore.
During their long stay at the secluded house, Alma openly discloses a lot of private information with Elisabet regarding her own personal life experiences before becoming a nurse. One of the stories that Alma shared was when she was committing an act of sexual deviance with two younger boys and a woman (whom she just met) named Katarina while sunbathing nude at a beach. During this odd incident, Alma ended up getting pregnant, then decided to get an abortion, which is a decision that continues to painfully haunt her. While it did appear that they have formed a friendly relationship with one another, the roles between Alma and Elisabet begin to switch after Alma finds a letter from Elisabet which stated that she was “studying” Alma the whole time and also told the doctor about her abortion story, which left her feeling hurt and betrayed. Alma initially started out as the subservient caretaker, but begins to behave emotionally insecure and unstable. On the other hand, Elisabet, who was once in a state of convalescence, now looks at Alma scrupulously in a calm and collected manner.
On a visual level, I think Bergman does an amazing job of showcasing the subtle nuances and idiosyncrasies of the emotions on the character’s faces. The film is shot in black-and-white, and he uses a lot of close-up shots which instills an element of raw intimacy and perturbation throughout many of the scenes, it sort of leaves you visually whiplashed as you watch. Their was also an ethereal dream-like sequence where Elisabet salaciously visits Alma in her room in the house, which I found to be very fascinating because this moment carried itself with a lot of ambiguity since it leaves you thinking whether this actually happened or not.
While I am probably delving into speculation, I believe that Alma was by herself the whole time, while Elisabet was just a warped persona that came to fruition within the inner machinations of her mind due to all the anxieties that she’s been bottling up over the years. This possibly might stem from her sense of guilt from the abortion she had in the past since Alma wanted to be a mother just like Elisabet. But, that’s just my guess.
All in all, while Persona can be quite a befuddling experience, I still think it’s a movie worth watching. The acting performances from the two leading roles are admirable in delivery, and it’s splendidly shot when it comes to aesthetic. In addition, the story leaves a lot of room for interpretation, which gives this film plenty of rewatchability since you could gauge a whole different message from it if you decide to watch it again in the future. If you are looking for a mind-altering psychological film to indulge in, I’d totally recommend Persona.