Persona is arguably Ingmar Bergman’s most challenging and experimental film. Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullman) is an accomplished stage actress who, in the middle of performing Elektra, ceases to speak. Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson), the young nurse assigned to care for her, learns that there is nothing physically or even psychologically wrong with Elisabeth – she has simply, consciously decided not to speak. Alma (the name, not accidentally, is the Spanish word for soul) describes her initial impressions of Elisabeth as gentle and childlike, but with strict eyes. She takes Elisabeth to the attending physician’s remote summer house to facilitate her recuperation. At first, the two seem ideally suited: a talkative, candid, and inexperienced nurse, and a sophisticated, enigmatic, and silent patient. They take long walks, bask in the sun, and read together. It is obvious that their isolation has cultivated a sense of intimacy between them, albeit one-sided. But it is a curious attachment. At first, Alma attempts to fill the void of Elisabeth’s silence. She talks incessantly about her life, unburdening her soul to the seemingly attentive patient. But soon, it is obvious that Elisabeth’s interest is more than mere politeness or voyeuristic curiosity. She is, in fact, “willing” her identity – the facade she created as Elisabeth Vogler – to the mentally weaker Alma. Elisabeth’s struggle for absolute transference – the proverbial battle for the soul – is a means of further divorcing herself from the pain of her own existence. Persona is a provocative, highly cerebral, and artistically complex depiction of human frailty, cruelty, and identity.
Bergman uses minimal composition and extremely tight close-ups to illustrate the theme of psychological deconstruction. Note the prevalent use of single camera shots throughout the duration of a scene. The lack of camera movement forces us to study the characters’ faces. Persona, after all, as the title suggests, is not about who the person actually is, but the different identities, or facades, that the person projects. Figuratively, Elisabeth Vogler, having played the role of celebrity, wife, and mother, has decided to abandon her persona and walk off the stage. A variation on the idea of duality provides an essential ingredient to the plot development. The themes of experience, children, and romantic relationships take on very different meanings for the two women. Alma seems to covet what Elisabeth has, but she has deliberately chosen other paths. Note the monologue that is shown twice: one showing a close-up of Alma, and the other of Elisabeth. It is a scene about regret, frustration, and denial. The effect illustrates how different, and yet similar, these two women are… and how cruel and destructive the human will can be.
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