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  • Benjamin May

Persona (1966) Review

There are few directors whose films have sparked as much rumination and analysis as Ingmar Bergman. His cinematic creations, utterly unique in style and tone, have been and shall continue to be debated and critiqued for decades. Many consider him the master of minimalism, whose work subtly exposes the truth of the human condition, while others hail his films as unnecessarily abstruse and pretentious. Whatever one's feelings on Bergman, it must be said that his films are certainly intriguing; and perhaps none more so than 'Persona.'

'Persona' follows Alma, a nurse, who is put in charge of Elisabet, an actress who has been inexplicably rendered mute. It is determined that Elisabet may better recover in an environment other than the hospital, and she and Alma travel to a cottage on a remote island for respite. While there, a strange metamorphosis occurs, and the identities of Alma and Elisabet become blurred in relation to one another; as repressed memories are brought to light and motivations questioned.

'Persona' tells this story in a manner most abstract, relying heavily on Sven Nykvist's powerful cinematography and the expressionistic talents of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson to forward the narrative as much as Bergman's screenplay and dialogue. It is a strange, sinister film seeped in a mysterious aura of despondency that challenges and offers the viewer no quarter. Through its' examinations of jealously, sex and identity, the film holds a mirror up to the human condition; the reflection of which is most affecting and raises many questions.

Just what is the film about? Is it some kind of Scandinavian Jekyll and Hyde story about doubling and the duality of man? Does it fit in with Jung's notion of persona, or could it be a psychological interrogation of female sexuality? Is it a critique of theatre and the notion of performance in itself? The film is open to interpretation, and many readings can be given as to its' meaning. Whether or not this appeals to the viewer is entirely subjective; though those who enjoy stories of abstraction will certainly find it an interesting, unique experience.

As mentioned above, much of the film's impact is due to Sven Nykvist's cinematography, which is spellbinding. The film begins with a bizarre montage of distorted images, ever-increasing in strangeness and emotional intensity from there. Under Bergman's direction, Nykvist captures what Herzog refers to as the drama of the landscape masterfully, as well as making excellent use of the close-up; adding immeasurable power to scenes. Nykvist's collaboration with Bergman was one of the most fruitful in cinematic history; as the striking images in 'Persona' prove yet again.

'Persona' stars Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, both delivering fascinatingly impassioned performances as Elisabet and Alma, respectively. Ullmann does the bulk of her acting silently, utilizing her impressive expressionistic talents to convey the emotion and feelings of her character, which she does in a manner most efficacious and affecting. Andersson displays remarkable versatility, intensity and emotional perspicuity, creating in Alma a remarkably multi-faceted character that one does not easily forget. The two of them work together wonderfully, showcasing a chemistry both electric and genuine.

Having said all that, it's easy to see why many viewers feel the film isn't worthy of its' reputation as a motion picture magnum opus. It is an intentionally difficult film, one which forces the viewer to think and doesn't offer much entertainment value in the traditional sense. The story and its themes are Delphic and the characters are hard to warm to, and- though undeniably powerful- the irregularity of the cinematography can be occasionally confounding. It is not unjust to say that some may feel the film underwhelming and incomprehensible; though many more may find its obscurities intoxicating.

Ingmar Bergman's 'Persona' is a captivating film, one which continues to perplex and puzzle. Strongly acted and beautifully shot by Sven Nykvist, the film is somewhat recherché, and its meaning and value will likely be hotly contested by film buffs for years to come. Intriguing, abstract and unique, it is a mystifying film, and whether you love it or hate it, 'Persona' is certainly memorable.


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