21 April 2005 | gftbiloxi
PERSONA may well be Ingmar Bergman's most complex film--yet, like many Bergman films, the story it tells is superficially simple. Actress Elizabeth Volger has suddenly stopped speaking in what appears to be an effort to cease all communication with the external world. She is taken to a hospital, where nurse Alma is assigned to care for her. After some time, Elisabeth's doctor feels the hospital is of little use to her; the doctor accordingly lends her seaside home to Elisabeth, who goes there with Alma in attendance. Although Elisabeth remains silent, the relationship between the women is a pleasant one--until a rainy day, too much alcohol, and Elisabeth's silence drives Alma into a series of highly charged personal revelations.
It is at this point that the film, which has already be super-saturated with complex visual imagery, begins to create an unnerving and deeply existential portrait of how we interpret others, how others interpret us, and the impact that these interpretations have upon both us and them. What at first seemed fond glances and friendly gestures from the silent Elisabeth are now suddenly open to different interpretations, and Alma--feeling increasingly trapped by the silence--enters into a series of confrontations with her patient... but these confrontations have a dreamlike quality, and it becomes impossible to know if they are real or imagined--and if imagined, in which of the women's minds the fantasy occurs.
Ultimately, Bergman seems to be creating a situation in which we are forced to acknowledge that a great deal of what we believe we know about others rests largely upon what we ourselves project upon them. Elisabeth's face and its expressions become akin to a blank screen on which we see our own hopes, dreams, torments, and tragedies projected--while the person behind the face constantly eludes our understanding. In this respect, the theme is remarkably well-suited to its medium: the blankness of the cinema screen with its flickering, endless shifting images that can be interpreted in infinite ways.
Bergman is exceptionally fortunate in his actresses here: both Liv Ullman as the silent Elisabeth and Bibi Anderson as the increasingly distraught Alma offer incredible performances that seem to encompass both what we know from the obvious surface and what we can never know that exists behind their individual masks. Ullman has been justly praised for the power of her silence in this film, and it is difficult to imagine another actress who could carry off a role that must be performed entirely by ambiguous implications. Anderson is likewise remarkable, her increasing levels of emotional distress resounding like the waves upon the rocks at their seaside retreat. And Bergman and his celebrated cinematographer Sven Nykvist fill the screen with a dreamlike quality that is constantly interrupted by unexpected images ranging from glimpses of silent films to a moment at which the celluloid appears to burn to images that merge Ullman and Anderson's faces into one.
As in many of his films, Bergman seems to be stating that we cannot know another person, and that our inability to do is our greatest tragedy. But however the film is interpreted, it is a stunning and powerful achievement, one that will resonate with the viewer long after the film ends.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer