Ingmar Bergman has always been cinema’s great existentialist. His work delves into musings about life and death and love and sex and the mystery surrounding all of it. Watching one of his films is equivalent almost to a church confessional, as if he is whispering to us all his deepest thoughts.
Filmed during the height of the war in Vietnam, Persona (1966) begins with a series of seemingly random images: corpses, spiders, a young boy waking up, hands nailed into a cross, a reel of film spinning out of control while showing old cartoons.
We then meet our principal characters: An actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), who falls into a silent state suddenly during a performance and her young, soon-to-be married nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson).
The two spend the summer at a doctor’s summer house. Throughout their stay, the audience learns about each woman, one through talking (Alma), the other by silence (Elisabet). Alma relates a lucid sexual excursion she and her friend had at the beach and the subsequent abortion. Her guilt afterwards festers and makes her wonder if she could be two people at once. Afterwards, in a dreamlike state, both women meet in the dead of night and seemingly blend together. Upon discovering that Elisabet has been condescendingly humoring her during their stay and seeing her as a case study, the two fight. Their fight escalating into surrealism, Elisabet’s husband arrives and confuses Alma for Elisabet, further drawing the two characters together. It is revealed that Elisabet hates her child, and Alma is terrified of their strange connection, seemingly trying to convince herself that she will not end up the same way. In a state of near vampirism, Alma cuts her wrist and Elisabet drinks her blood before Alma repeatedly slaps her. Alma leaves Elisabet as the audience views the film projector spin to a stop.
Bergman described the film as a poem in images. He came up with the initial idea after an operation and the process of waking up from unconsciousness. The film seems to imply that consciousness is something unnatural. Both Alma and Elisabet suffer from delusions about what they should be feeling, but can’t. Love is a mystery to them and even harmful in respects. Elisabet is hiding from confronting her fears about humanity, and Alma tries to convince herself that she won’t end up like Alma, a vessel of emptiness. Hands are a visual key throughout the film, always reaching, searching for connection. When both characters realize just how similar they are, they see that they are both deluding themselves.
The camera stays on the two women’s faces during the pivotal conclusion. We see every movement in their expression, their lips trembling, their eyes watering. Through this deep inspection, the audience understands that both characters are open to us despite what they hide from themselves. And then the faces merge.
Perhaps Bergman was making a comparison between the character of Elisabet and us, the audience. We sit back and view the film silently as Elisabet does, watching Alma pour herself out to us, telling us her story, but, like Elisabet, we watch with amusement rather than investment, and Bergman resents our condescension.
Or perhaps Bergman was insinuating the decline of structures themselves. Featuring shots of Nazi concentration camps and a monk burning himself in protest, the 1960s were a time when societal structures were viewed with rancor. By deconstructing the film process and showing the film reel in his film, perhaps Bergman implies that all structures, whether they be social or sexual or governmental or cinematic, are false compared to the allure of unconsciousness and the peace that entails.
Alma eventually convinces Elisabet to say one word. “Nothing.” Perhaps that is the meaning of the film, a desire to return to nothingness when confronted with both halves of our personality, one ready to admit the truth and the other trying to hide it.
Perhaps Bergman’s seminal work, “Persona” continues to haunt and entrance those who view it. It will always be one of the greatest works of cinema.