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"The human face is the great subject of the cinema. Everything is there" - Ingmar Bergman,
This review is from: Persona (DVD)
When talking of Bergman, critics and viewers usually name "Wild Strawberries", "The Seventh Seal" or "Cries and Whispers" ahead of Persona. While those films are all amazing and stay very high on my list of all time favorites, for me, the truly unique and unforgettable is "Persona" - Bergman's enigmatic masterpiece.
The story is seemingly simple:
"A nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), has been assigned to care for a famous actress, Elizabeth (Liv Ullman), who suddenly stopped speaking during a performance of Electra and has remained silent ever since. When they go to stay in a seaside house owned by Alma's psychiatrist colleague, the apparently self-confident nurse gradually reveals more and more of herself in the face of Elizabeth's silence, and is shocked to read a letter the actress has written implying that Alma is an interesting case-study. The two women seem almost to exchange identities, or to become one (strikingly expressed visually in a famous shot); in a dream sequence (or perhaps fantasy), Elizabeth's husband comes to visit and seems to think that Alma is his wife. Finally Alma, back in her nurse's uniform, catches a bus to go home, leaving the almost-mute Elizabeth alone."
Whether Alma was able to get her identity back remains one of the film's many questions.
What is absolutely wonderful in the film - performances from two actresses. Anderson is the one who has to carry almost the entire dialog, her voice is one of the film's priceless treasures while Ullman is equally powerful in expressing hundreds of emotions through her face and eyes. Sven Nykvist's camera, the third star of the film makes two stars shine so bright.
Each scene in 81 minutes long film is memorable, some of them just unforgettable. For instance, the long scene where Alma reveals her most intimate memories of a sexual encounter with two boys while sunbathing nude with another girl on an empty beach, is infinitely more erotic to listen to than it would have been to see in flashback.
There is so much to think about in Persona. One major question concerns Elizabeth's silence: is it elective, as happens in Tarkovsky's "Andrei Rublyov" , or is it some kind of mental breakdown?. The documentaries about the war horrors that Elizabeth watches on TV suggest the former; the fact that it suddenly happens during a stage performance of "Electra" suggests the latter. I keep thinking about it. Why "Electra" of all plays? The story of the daughter who hated her mother and wanted her dead - does it reflect the accusation brought up by Alma that Elizabeth did not love her deformed son and wanted him dead? Did Elizabeth become so overwhelmed by guilt realizing that her life reminded so much of Electra's story? We don't know for sure, and Bergman does not help. The identical monologue in which Alma is accusing Elizabeth is the film's resolution. We hear it twice: first time, camera is concentrating on Elizabeth's face, second time - on Alma's. Is Alma talking about Elizabeth or herself or both? After that encounter on the beach, Alma became pregnant and had an abortion. The monologue may reflect her feelings of guilt and emptiness as well as Elizabeth's. Does it really happen?
Is Elizabeth a vampire sucking the life out of her victims only to use them as characters for her acting roles? Is that the ultimate price the artist is paying for being a great artist? Does he need lives and souls of others to be able to create? Can he/she love the ones who utterly depend on them and need their love? This film and later Autumn Sonata (1978) with Ingrid Bergman as a concert pianist show famous stars as selfish women who can't and don't love their children. The same question was brought up also in the earlier "Through a Glass Darkly (1961)" - in the relationship of the writer and his daughter.
Then there is the question of whether there are really two women at all; could the whole film be played out as a fantasy of one of them, or indeed of somebody else? Is there a sexual attraction between the two women? It might be or might be not. I believe, David Lynch has watched "Persona" very carefully, thought about it and used some of its ideas in his own "Mullholland Dr."
There are so many questions in this incredible film that are left unanswered. For almost forty years, viewers and filmmakers alike have been trying to find the answers. One thing is obvious - this is one of the films you want to watch over and over again. I think it should be seen by any viewer. If you've seen it already - see it again. You'll learn something new. If you have not seen it - you are in for a great experience. See it for Sven Nykvist's camera work, for Liv's face, for Bibi's voice, for the unique and mysterious world that is Ingmar Bergman's universe.