Culture Your Ass:”Persona”

Written by Joey Simpson December 01, 2011

Ingmar Bergman had always considered this film, among a trifle of his vast catalogue, to be his greatest creative work, without which he would have been “washed up”. Considering he had already directed many cinematic landmarks, such as The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and The Virgin Spring, it seems odd that he could be at a loss creatively. But this may be the power that Persona has and how it is so great a departure from Bergman`s conventions. It is as ambitious as it radical, but still free against the conventions of contemporary art cinema of the 1960’s. With Persona, Bergman uses the film medium to the absolute limit to express common themes of identity and human relationships in a whole new dimension, while making a statement about film as a whole.

The film begins with a surreal montage of heavily symbolic and obscure images (among them a crucifix and an erect penis) which precedes the plot of the film. The plot is as follows: a young nurse, Alma (Bibi Ansersson), is instructed to care for famous theatre actress, Elizabet Volger (Liv Ullmann), who suffers a mental breakdown on stage and becomes mute. Alma finds comfort in speaking to the mute Elizabet and speaks about her life and her most deep-seeded sins. Overtime however, the identities of the two become blurred and gradually leading to an existentialist crisis which come to dominate the film.

Persona harkens to Bergman’s art cinema roots in that the film does not rely on its narrative to espouse theme. Imbedded deep in its core is the film’s emphasis on psychology which is explicitly shown in the film’s jarring, psychologically infused imagery throughout the film. What makes Persona stand out is that it Bergman contemplating every dimension of the film, from the characters’ relationship with eachother, to their relationship with the audience, and even Bergman’s relationship with his creation. One particular scene that shows this is one where Elizabet emotionally breaks down after witnessing self-immolation on television. Bergman makes a direct statement about film-making itself and his own medium in the body of Elizabet, an actress who had spent much of life in a role, yet cannot handle the realities of an objective world, much in the same way that an audience cannot truly grasp the complexities of a character on screen. And like the character of Alma, the film’s characters yearn to have themselves heard, unfortunately to an apathetic and passive audience.

The film is a technical and artistic marvel; its high-contrast cinematography and direction make it legendary in its own right. Bergman masterfully isolates the two female leads in ever facet, from distinctive clothing to emphasized and artful close-ups. The overall statement of the film is magnanimous and complex. It is a philosophical and psychological analysis not only of identity, but of communication between human beings. Persona demands repeat viewings because every single shot and image serves a thematic purpose in this nightmarish, existential identity-crisis film. Like Camus’ L’Étranger and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, its ideas can be interpreted in many ways because of its simple, yet profound statements of life.

Universally acclaimed by world cinema and endlessly referenced, Persona belongs in the pantheon of film excellence, and I wouldn’t feign to argue it belongs in the Western canon of literature. I implore the reader to see this film, not only as Bergman’s opus, but as a standard text for all cinema viewing.

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