Persona ★★★★★

Rewatched again because it is so amazing and I needed to make sense of it.

A film of gestures as universal and infinite motifs, Persona explores the human condition with intense curiosity, immense technical skill, engrossing experimentation, and beguiling warmth. An actress recovering from a mental breakdown develops an intense relationship with her nurse in this modernist, self-reflexive psychodrama, likely to leave the viewer into a long state of personal contemplation. Certainly Persona is Ingmar Bergman's most concentrated work, in a sense a summation of the themes dominant in most of his previous films; and it is undeniably a difficult film, if only because it leaves itself open to so many interpretations. Whether the film's ambiguous meanings strike you as profound or overblown, there's greatness enough in its aesthetic marvels: the power of its performances, the beauty of its images and the deftness of its sudden shifts. The ambiguous nature of this work discussing identity, modernity and duality, paired with its stunning directorial virtuosity, completely exhausts the medium's potential in one staggering blaze of monochromatic glory. Two other films I find to have the same intense, austere sense of observation from the camera and also focus on disillusioned female protagonists are Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, the metaphysical bind of them all being their respective cinematic designs eliciting a profound sense of emotion, identity, and responsiveness across time, space, and memory. Bergman’s Persona offers a strange and unique experience. It’s a film you stagger away from and, most probably, into a lengthy period of private reflection. In that snap second when the film ends, you’ll feel compelled to land on a snap judgement, but you’d do well to just try and obstruct your synapses for a little while. A bewildering masterpiece of an utterly definitive ilk in cinema, one of the great achievements in the history of the medium.

Bergman’s whole work is based on an essential metaphor: the cinema as a theatre, and it is not a case that in Persona, surely his most famous and probably his most stylistically experimental film, everything starts from the theatre itself. Elisabeth is a theatrical actress who, during a show, suddenly stops acting, taken by an incredible desire of laughing. The doctor comes to understand that the patient’s dumbness is not given by a neurosis, but is a conscious choice, so the doctor decides to propose her spending a period of rest and recovery in her home by the sea, flanked by the nurse Alma. In this isolated environment, however, Alma will begin to confide totally herself to the perpetually silent Elisabeth, until it reaches a kind of fusion of personalities before and a strong clash then, which will eventually lead the two to divide from each other.

A synopsis of the plot can not make justice to such a film, which certainly does not seek its expression in the action, but in the perpetual analysis carried out by the camera on the faces of the protagonists: this is Bergman’s style, highlighted by the exceptionally stark illumination of DP Sven Nykvist. His bright whites and blacks concentrate all the details of the framing on the investigation of the character’s faces, where effects of light and shadow draw the most inner emotions. The exaltation of faces also passes from a precise choice of construction: the scenography is essential, indoor, closed spaces with minimalist furniture and often simple backgrounds that contrast with the faces of the protagonists (except the few scenes shot outdoors, but they seem to aim at a Bazinian realism, at the slightest modification of reality before being filmed).. We can see how Bergman uses the foreground both to affirm what the dialogues say, and to deny it. What is true, and what is false? Are the words of man true or so it is the image in the mirror of the woman? What is the real sense of reality?

Regarding Bergman’s motif of the cinema as a theatre, The theatre has always been the real social art, the art that most of all can make the spectators understand the meaning of their actions, of their own being in the world. Since the advent of cinema, however, there have been in fact two arts with roughly the same goal. According to Bergman, the stage of the theatre can represent the life of the men, and the same thing does the cinema, but thanks to its technological innovations the latter can show characters’ emotions more closely. If the theatre is therefore a metaphor of life, Elisabeth’s renunciation of acting, with an attached desire to laugh, is the metaphor of the renunciation of impersonating a part in her life, the renunciation to wear a mask in front of others, aware of the lack of sense, which generates the laugh. Muteness is therefore a rebellion to the bourgeois system, to the system of masks, with inspirations of pirandellian memory (the masks that we wear and that are imposed by the bourgeois society, opposed to the flow of life, which does not assert and crystallizes itself, flowing within us). But Bergman’s direct reference, more than Pirandello, is definitely Carl Jung. The same title of the film refers to the psychoanalytic studies of the scholar, who believed that men possessed a Persona, that is an external mask with which they were shown to the world; and a Soul, that is the internal image.

When the Persona, or the mask of the two protagonists, begins to no longer acquire a distinctive trait (thanks to the light of Nykvist that blends the faces of Elisabeth and Alma), it is the Soul that comes out (often as a stream of consciousness, or of unconsciousness, unrestrained), a soul that hides secrets. If in fact Alma, after various personal explosions with Elisabeth, comes to tell her a moment of total sexual perdition (a sexual group experience on a beach) whose effects she still feels on her psyche. In the same way Elisabeth hides her thoughts about her motherhood, an unintended motherhood, which perhaps contributed to her present state, probably an escape from the figure of the mother-woman. A character no longer interpretable by the new woman of the 20th century, conscious of her rights and of gender equality (can the choice to use almost only female interpreters not be a revolutionary position?). In this perspective, the child of the prologue and of the epilogue would therefore be the son of the same Elisabeth, who fails to recognize his mother even through glasses, since he has always seen only the person, the image, and never the soul. These are the words said by Alma to Elisabeth, discovering the unintended motherhood of the actress: it’s the classic Bergmanesque dialogue that is full of significance, in a continual affirmation and denial of what is said.

Elisabeth’s unwanted motherhood brings us back to the opening sequence of the film, the most experimental part of the work. In the beginning, film burns, and then images follow without any apparent sense: skeletons that dance, a snapshot of a penis, a hand pierced by a nail. Bergman’s metaphor seems obvious: it is impossible to continue to narrate in a classical way a life that has now totally lost its meaning, in which images apparently with no meaning appear in front of, without being interpreted, without letting us understand about us. Among the various images, one, however, is particularly important: the hand pierced by a nail. It of course reconnects in our collective imagination to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The Death of God. The death of God by the hand of men. This is the other great topic of Bergman’s cinema, a world lacking in ideals, where a god driven by us has no intention to return. With this sense of estrangement, the Bergman wants to make us aware of our existence: at the very moment when a character looks towards us, the cinematic deception is over, that character is actually turning to us - it is evident how Bergman takes this practice from the theatre itself. In the beginning of Persona, then, the whole mechanism is even more enriched of meanings: if we are identified with the image, with the Persona of the mother, then what are we, People or Souls? Do we also wear masks or are we really ourselves?

The creation of a story and then explosion of the film itself with the succession of a series of images without any apparent sense: creation as a metaphor and at the same time a destruction of the sense of the metaphor itself. This is what Bergman does in Persona; the theatre and the cinema are metaphors for life, but the same life they explore no longer has any meaning.

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