Updated: Dec 31, 2018

Commit suicide? No, too nasty. One doesn't do things like that. But you can refuse to move or talk. Then at least you're not lying. You can cut yourself off, close yourself in. Then you needn't play any roles, wear any masks, make any false gestures.

As a college student from an Ivy League institution, one with all its merits and reputations, a topic that often comes to my mind is a person's role in the world, and by that, I mean our world of entire communities and societies, united by order and chaos, identity and collectivism. One of the great problems that come with standardized education and award-based meritocracy is that the fundamental process of learning, exploring, studying and doing your best at it becomes a race, a contest, a vehicle of artificial quests towards excellence that relates satisfaction and happiness with recognition and success. When this form of lifestyle comes down from the academic platforms and reaches interpersonal relations, it becomes a serious form of false identity, false altruism and false exchange of feelings and ideas. We stop caring for the other and looking forward to mutual understanding and start turning the whole basis of human life into a game: the most successful, heartfelt and memorable people win, while less successful people lose and end the game as failing players.

This is my personal expansive opinion on the themes and motifs of Persona, the safe choice as Ingmar Bergman's greatest, most profound film. Ticking short at 85 minutes, it's the Bergman film that most openly forces and rewards multiple viewings and interpretations. The Swedish director belongs to a line of filmmaking that doesn't shy away from boasting complexity and thematic density, and his films became stereotypes of experimental filmmaking, often associated with stark imagery, flagrantly psychological dialogue, minimalist photography and fantasy-like pacing. All of his favorite themes and symbols are present in Persona, but the film, which stands out as one of the most uniquely impenetrable because it doesn't crave for the viewer's belief in straightforward realism. Persona belongs halfway between conventional storytelling and non-narrative filmmaking.

It stars two of Bergman's favorite actresses: the brilliant Liv Ullmann is Elisabet Vogler, a well-known stage actress who has gone silent after a strange performance of Electra and refuses to express herself beyond occasional nods and gestures; the equally fascinating Bibi Andersson plays Alma, Elisabet's inexperienced nurse, who is far from prepared to take care of her patient and must deal with the complexity of their relationship with her own hands. Bergman, Ullmann and Andersson were already so used to one another and had some much film experience (and other experiences together) the magnificence of these two performances almost doesn't come as a surprise: Liv Ullmann here only solidifies the certainty that no other actress of the sound era could express and explore so much with so little, and Bibi plays her role (and one extra) with such distinction and such equal grandeur one could wonder if this possibility is in any way feasible in real life.

In one of his many collaborations with master cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Bergman created one of his most fantastically shot films of his career. The work of Bergman and Nykvist is an unquestioned thing of beauty in general, but in Persona the role of lighting and production design is even more visible. Instead of going for a spectrum of black, white and its variations, Bergman and Nykvist opt for stark, haunting contrast, drastically lighting up the shots and adding volumes of surrealist drama to the story. Everything is black on white, light on shadow, grey on black-and-white and vice-versa, or maybe upside down, perhaps even sideways. The most remarkable evidence of Persona's revolutionary cinematography is in how Nykvist shoots Ullmann and Anderson's faces are shot, in an array of light and shadows that culminates at the scene when Alma tells a story about Elisabet and her motherly skills, showing half of her face lit and the other drenched in darkness, revealing an upcoming duplicity and asymmetry the film had been warning us about almost forever.

Even with delicate attention and analysis, a film like Persona defies easy explanations; here is a film that actually cares about taking the art of filmmaking seriously and challenging the viewer to look at film art from a different perspective. One could first think of writing about films like Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game and Seven Samurai to try to understand and figure out what makes these films so great; an unabashedly complex film like Persona would first demand an explanation to solve the meaning of the story itself, and to why it blurs itself in the first place. Chicago Reader anti-Bergman critic Dave Kehr defends that although this might be Bergman's finest film, it has too many avant-garde clichés. It's not only a controversial film for the topics it addresses - infidelity, promiscuous sexuality, abortion, maternal negligence, psychological sadomasochism - but perhaps because it also drifts entirely away from the exclusive notion of itself as entertainment. Persona dares the viewer to feel an incomplete experience and forces an answer in the form of examination.

This can be problematic for most viewers, especially because the story oscillates between scenes that make perfect sense and complete suspension of disbelief. You're given solid ground to balance yourself and then loses it. Persona is a film that exposes its depth, filling its surface with technical examinations of emotions and actions: the cast share them to each other with impressive, deliberate coldness, deviating from the average conversation both because it's violently invasive and because it requires sophistication and confidence which are rare to find. But this exposition is peculiarly important in Persona; take for example a harsh sequence that precedes their move-in to the beach house, when the director lays bare her full diagnosis on Elisabet's muteness. It doesn't go all the way and it isn't easy to swallow, but it predicts an entire course of action from the patient towards Alma's dedicated compassion. Such remarks fit the story well because, after all, it consists of a relationship between the madwoman and her analyst, and they give essential information that implies that Alma and the doctor are fiercely trying to solve the case, tie the loose ends, cure somehow what may or may not be a voluntary poisoning of the mind.

The center of the film's themes lie in Alma's attempts to establish a relationship with Elisabet, when there's absolutely no will from the patient to answer back to the clinician and open herself. This is what brought me to my expansive impression of what, Persona, after all, is about, because the film inevitably narrows down to a story of two humans trying to communicate, and of how they miserably fail to do that. The term Persona is an interesting starting point in itself: we often use it as a deeper definition of one's personality and psychological behavior, when one person believes he or she has figured out the inner secrets of the other one (She has a strong persona, or a weak persona, a complicated persona, it matches her persona). One's personality is related to how one acts, and consequently the role one plays. Elisabet, arguably a talented actress, doesn't expose herself like she would if she used her voice; she refuses to comply, to ask questions, to help Alma in any way possible. She refuses to be the patient, to play such role.

As she stays silent, a lack of balance in their relationship sets the story on fire: Persona is also about the influence of one role playing over the next - male and female, master and apprentice, aggressor and victim. Alma, in her struggle for caring and relating to Elisabet, becomes the patient, and her patient becomes the analyst. Alma open herself, tells about her life, about her fears and beliefs, and even about her sexual experiences. At first it may seem that Elisabet is a good listener, but in fact she's purely indifferent to her housemate and plays with the idea of examining and studying her own nurse. Her egoism is an ugly form of narcissism that relies on creating a superior reputation and saving a spot on a higher ground in the relationship: she listens to Alma because she finds it amusing and thinks that helping her and listening to her is the right thing to do and coincidentally makes her a better person. She's free from her responsibilities as a mother, a wife, a stage actress and practically everything, and has therefore one role left: that of the strong-willed, wiser friend.

Elisabet's indifference is all the more striking when played next to bodies of information foreign to the central story. Throughout the movie there are scenes that reveal an even deeper condescending guilt over things she's almost dutifully afraid of. In one sequence, she witnesses a Vietnamese manifestation against the American invasion, and in the other she mournfully stares at the picture of a small Jewish group being pushed down the road during World War II. Her state of shock towards such images plays against her negligent and aloof positions towards her son and Alma, and reveals her psychological vampirism over things: she has fears, anxieties and worries about ongoing perils and terrors in society, and she has a detached concern over things such as war and genocide, but her position regarding such issues is that of alien guilt over a general atrocity, instead of a position of actual care for the others.

It helps very little that Alma and Elisabet have lead very similar paths in their lives, but in opposite directions: one has managed to avoid her responsibilities as a mother, while the other prevented being one from the very beginning but grieves her decision; one has lead a lifestyle that consists entirely of playing roles and lying and in great fashion, while the other often expresses her admiration towards people who truly believe in a possible meaning behind everything, behind their lives; one has reached, in a way, the success she's always wanted, while the other has been accused by her lover of not being ambitious enough. There's a key scene when Alma confesses that she thought, after seeing one of Elisabet's films, that they looked and seemed very much alike. She never realizes how true this is, and that it was bound to become truer than ever before; not only they share intimate experiences and personal stories with each other, but their personalities start to merge. Thus was born one of the most iconic scenes in film history, when one visits the other's bedroom and they stare at the camera, tangling with each other and revealing scary physical and behavioral resemblances that could go wildly unnoticed until then.

The personality merge, which I still find too complicated to understand for the moment, leads the second half of the film, the first being mostly about one learning to cope with the other before house wars break out. As Elisabet drains Alma's identity out of her and she succumbs to her complementary self, they become one and only. It isn't only a combination of two comparable personalities; it's also one persona engulfing the other. One can note how Elisabet establishes Alma as an intermediary with her husband; how the camera seems to permanently seek a superimposition of both her faces, mostly privileging Elisabet's; how Elisabet's most drastic gestures seem to occur behind the curtains, while Alma openly recreates them. The silent treatment, in the end, can be just as violent and coercive as physical or verbal abuse.

In this game of cat-and-mouse that seems to forever move inward and outward, Persona is one of the great critiques of our society, a deceitfully simple experiment on egoism and social indifference that proves to be extremely poignant, to the extent that both Alma and Elisabet finish their adventure together and part ways as if what happened didn't provoke any change. But the marks are permanent, and so are the marks of this film. It tells us about the nature of the human spirit, which can show emotions without any compromise or can take the emotional disturbances of others as an opportunity. It tells us about cinema itself, symbolized in strange beginnings with even stranger solutions; it tells us about acting and role playing, which is one of the cores of filmmaking as a whole. And finally, it is filmmaking at its finest.

Reposted from 'The Hand Grenade' (

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