Persona

Persona ★★★★½

Part of the 30 Days in May challenge, 2014 edition

Sweden

After successfully conquering my fear of Fellini this year, it has come the time to beat the Bergman phobia. Earlier in the year kindly Letterboxder’s offered neophytes advice on what Bergman’s to tackle first, and which to wait on until you built up a sufficient appreciation. Apparently my wife didn’t see those lists, and we inaugurated the 30 Days in May challenge with Persona.

When my wife and I take the May challenge, we’ve found it best that we get up early and watch a film before work. This way we’re fresh enough to take on some potentially challenging films. Unfortunately for me, I was on a water fast due to some medical tests scheduled later in the day. Thus, no jolt of Joe to kick start the viewing. Well, Persona’s opening; I think it obviated the need for caffeine. Did I just see a few frames of an erect penis?

After the stylistic visual assault, and all my neurons firing at full speed, what I had always presumed was Bergman’s style began to shine through. Speaking of which, although this is my first Bergman, Woody Allen informed me of his style way back in 1975 with Love and Death and it has always stayed with me. Unfortunately, it kind of popped me out of the moment from time to time because I kept thinking of wheat.

As the film progressed, I was more and more impressed with this wonderful style. Not just visually, but the marvelous and delicate interplay between sound and vision. The scene where Liv Ullmans’s Elisabet drifts into Bibi Andersson’s Alma’s bedroom to the distant sounds of the clangs of buoys and the fog horn of a lighthouse was positively ethereal. Enough cannot be said of Sven Nykvist amazing use of light and shadow, and Olle Jacobsson’s harmonic mix of natural and unnatural strains.

The most impressive feat, however, was that this is a two hander where one character is mute. What a completely original concept! The foundation of the script has to be there, and Bergman certainly is as genius in this department as he is in his directorial role, but the screenplay and concept is nothing if it can’t be pulled off by the actors. Bibi Andersson would, at first blush, seem to have the more challenging part as she has to deliver all of the dialogue, and it’s her character that we see metamorphose, but it’s up to Liv Ullmann to carry her side of the equation in silence, with expression alone. She succeeds completely. I love this woman.

I know Bergman is full of philosophical and psychological import, and I think I’ll have to watch and study for quite some time to be able to offer even the most merge opinion. One thing that did strike me though was the empathy that seemed so pervasive. Both Elisabet and Alma so caring for each other in unspoken ways. More than the wonderful visuals and sound, I think this is what will be drawing me back to Bergman.

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