Persona ★★★★

Film #29 of Cinebro's "I Picked the Wrong Week to Quit Sniffing Glue" Challenge

To me, watching "Persona" is like watching Garry Kasparov play chess: I know that I'm watching a genius at work, but I'm not smart enough to see how all of the moves make sense. That's not to say that I dislike it, though. On the contrary, I enjoy watching it (and being frustrated and befuddled by it) as much as just about any other film. I imagine that I'll watch it again sometime in the new year, and probably the year after that. But no matter how many times I watch it, I still find that it operates on a level that I can't quite reach. All I can do is sit back and applaud.

In giving us the story of an actress stricken mute by the horrors of the modern world and the ebullient nurse who oversees her care, Bergman gives us his most stylistically and structurally ambitious film. This is no small feat, as this is a supremely minimalist movie with only a handful of actors and even fewer speaking roles. For most of the film, Alma the nurse talks and Elizabet the actress listens, and little else happens. But then reality and fantasy start to bend in ways not always obvious. Long monologues are devoted to ideas tangential to the plot. Not once but twice does Bergman break down the fourth wall to remind the audience that they are watching a movie. And while I love each of these characteristics from moment to moment, I've never been able to wrap my mind around the film as a whole. It's easy to read the whole thing as a psychological horror story where one character metaphorically consumes another (and references to vampirism abound), but how does that jive with the metatextual aspects? Is watching this film meant to be passionate and visceral or detached and intellectual? I know that "Persona" doesn't necessarily have to be either/or, but things shift so dramatically from scene to scene that it's impossible for me to keep my balance.

And again, this imbalance is OK with me. I don't have to understand Bergman's every intent. I appreciate the fact that there are indecipherable mysteries in art that I can't explain, rationalize, or intellectualize. It makes me want to keep coming back (though honestly, I'd keep coming back for Sven Nykvist's photography alone - brilliant doesn't even begin to describe it). "Persona" may not be my most beloved of Bergman's films, but it's probably the one that I'll revisit most often for the rest of my life. Just because I don't get it doesn't mean I won't keep trying.

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