The quick rundown of this movie:
- It was made in 1966
- It is Swedish, and available with subtitles.
- Directed by Ingmar Bergman
- Stars Bibi Andersonn as Sister Alma, The Nurse, and Liv Ulmann as Elisabet Volger, the Actress
I can't say I understood the plot of the movie – was Elisabet truly mute out of choice, or had some psychological damage been dealt to her that she withdrew defensively? Why did she write the letter to the Doctor back at the hospital, divulging Alma's confessions?
To some degree I understand, not because Elisabet talks, but information that is weaned from the three other characters in the movie – Alma, and to a far lesser degree of screen time, the Doctor and Mr. Volger. We learn throughout the movie: she was an actress; she fell mute after having an awkward moment on stage. She has a husband and child she is not comfortable talking about. She is sensitive to the woes of the world, portrayed in the scene where she watches the self-immolated monks on the television. Though she is mute, she is not a trustworthy person in which to confide, as shown by her letter which Alma reads. She lies to Alma to preserve the 'bubble of insanity' she has created for herself, and she manipulates Alma for the same purpose. And lastly, we learn that she regrets having become a mother, because of her cold and unsympathetic nature which makes it difficult for her to connect to her son.
However, that last tidbit of knowledge is procured entirely through Alma, who throughout the duration of the movie is mentally tried in her caretaking of the actress. She is both naϊve and too open in her dealings with Elisabet – perhaps it is because she is the actress' foil (or is it vice versa perhaps?). Through the prolonged exposure to each other, Alma somehow begins to take on the persona of Elisabet, in the same way the actress might have assumed a role in a play, but in the process she loses a sense of her identity.
I think the transformation Alma undergoes is caused by her naϊvety in her admiration of the actress. In an early scene, she tells Elisabet how she admires actors and perceives them as benevolent people; through the course of the film she learns the opposite is true, simply by being confronted with the wall of silence with which Elisabet has concealed herself.
The silence of Elisabet also becomes her in a way: she is cold and unsympathetic in her inaction as well as her inferred action, the knowledge we gain of her through others. But I feel she is the more relatable of the two characters – she isn't a nice person, and runs away from her problems through her muteness, whereas Alma is all smiles and naϊvety and customary politeness, and has to be stripped of her visad. It isn't necessarily that she becomes Elisabet – it is that she is like her, like any real human – she has regrets, secrets. Elisabet is not held to the same standard, because she is 'insane' and can thus act according to her selfish nature and desires.
The art direction of the movie – beautiful, flawless, not at all what I'd expect from a movie from 1966. The film itself is preserved perfectly (including the places where parts of the reel were intentionally destroyed) and while some of the backdrops felt sterile (the hospital rooms, the bare mattresses) similar to movies of its time, Persona had the feeling and definition of a modern movie. The natural textures, from the rocks to the characteristics of the actresses' skin – every pore is clear as day. The lighting is also effectively dramatic – I guess hear would be a good part to say, the film was beautiful and thus subtle, giving way to the plot of the film until that turned on its head. I would remind myself, "it's technically an art film, it doesn't quite have to make sense." But further introspection, as Alma did in the story, uncovered the plot for me.
While at first glance it's a crazy, nonsensical and long-winded mind fuck of a movie, Ingmar Bergman's Persona is really a faultlessly crafted film, both visually and in its dissection of the walls we build around ourselves.