Persona – Ingmar Bergman (1966)

Persona is a film by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, released in 1966, and starring Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann. Bergman held this film to be one of his most important; in his book Images, he writes: “Today I feel that in Persona—and later in Cries and Whispers—I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.” He also said that

At some time or other, I said that Persona saved my life—that is no exaggeration. If I had not found the strength to make that film, I would probably have been all washed up. One significant point: for the first time I did not care in the least whether the result would be a commercial success…

Bergman wrote Persona during nine weeks while recovering from pneumonia. During filming Bergman wanted to call the film A Bit of Cinematography. His producer suggested something more accessible and the title of the film was changed. Persona is a minimalist film: although five actors appear onscreen, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann are the only ones to appear for more than a minute, and Elisabet Vogler (Ullmann’s character) speaks only fourteen words in the film. There are no dressing-props; only items the characters use are shown onscreen. The imagery is dominated by extreme contrast, with the cottage scenes being drenched by intense sunlight that washes the image out in a white glare, and the actors wearing solid black costumes, simple hairstyles, and no make-up.

Persona is considered one of the major works of the 20th century by essayists and critics such as Susan Sontag, who referred to it as Bergman’s masterpiece. Other critics have described it as “one of this century’s great works of art”. In Sight and Sound’s 1972 poll of the ten greatest films of all time, Persona was ranked at number five.

Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film, photographed by Sven Nykvist, begins when famous actress Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann) freezes on stage in the middle of a performance. Struck dumb by an unknown cause, she winds up in the care of young inexperienced nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson), and together they retreat to the seaside for the summer, where they enter into an uncommon intimacy and clash of wills. Bergman’s study of the fragility of the human being and the treachery of life is incredibly moving in its perception and unrivaled imagery. And as always with Bergman and his reappearing ensemble of actors, the performances are flawless. Especially notable is the scene in which Alma recounts for the silent Elisabeth a morally and emotionally ambivalent erotic encounter she had experienced on a beach with a friend and two teenage boys. It is one of the most strangely erotic scenes ever filmed, and not a stitch of clothing is removed. Also of interest, and one of the most intriguing scenes in the film, perhaps among the most intriguing in all of cinema, is when Elisabeth paces barefooted back and forth over a patio on which we know there to be broken glass. It is an achievement in simple suspense from which many an aspiring director of thrillers could learn a bit. For those who’ve had their fill of predictable plots, irrelevant matter, and apish acting and are looking for something a little more sensual, poetic, and relevant to what life is about beyond the daily grind, this may be a good place to start.

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