Everyone agrees that Ingmar Bergman is one of the greatest director’s of world cinema. Almost no one disagrees that his films can be difficult to watch and even more so to understand. I’ve long held the theory than when Americans say that they do no like foreign language films they really just don’t like Bergman. Even if they’ve never heard his name or watched his films, his style of intellectual, arty, often-incomprehensible cinema is exactly the sort of thing that turns people off from non-Hollywood movies.
I’ll admit that while I do hold the director in the highest esteem, and some of his films are some of the greatest ever made, I have to be in a very certain sort of mood to attempt one of his films. When Persona arrived in my mail-box I was thrilled, and a little nervous. The film nerd in me loves having more Bergman to show-off on my shelves and Criterion’s packaging is as gorgeous as ever. I also knew it would be a film to treasure, study, and adore. It was the critic in me that balked. Bergman’s type of high art can be difficult to digest, even harder to truly understand, and impossible to parse out in a few paragraphs for a review.
Yet here we are (and perhaps you’ve already guessed I’m copping out a bit by using two paragraphs to get meta about this review rather than actually reviewing the film). So let me at this point simply say that I loved it. Absolutely, completely adored it. I won’t say that I understood it, but it left me mesmerized and wanting more.
Let us first get the plot out of the way. While on the stage, in the middle of a performance, actress Elisabet Volger (Liv Ullmann) suddenly stops talking. She completely ceases to speak. The doctors can find no physical or mental reason for this and so it simply must be a conscious choice on her part. One of the doctor’s enlists a young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) to take Elisabet to her seaside house hoping some rest away from the city will do her good.
With Elisabet still not talking, Alma fills the silence with constant chatter. At first, she talks about unimportant things but as time moves on she begins to open up and reveals the deepest parts of herself. Including an intense, anonymous sexual liaison with two teenage boys and another woman, and the abortion she had afterwards. But as the days pass with Elisabet still remaining mute Alma begins to feel guilt and anger at having confessed so much, but to know so little about Elisabet and their relationship is damaged. Soon after, the two depart the beach house.
With that simple plot Bergman builds a film with great depth and meaning. It grapples with the meaning of life and personhood, religion and sex, the relationship of film to reality. It looks at the atrocities we are capable of and whether it is even possible for us to know anyone, including ourselves truly, completely. Yet, like all great art, it gives no answers. It only poses the questions.
There are strange moments in the film where the filmmaker is experimenting with the very nature of reality and film. In a long opening montage, we are greeted with seemingly random images from the innards of a film camera to scenes from old silent pictures and religious symbols like a lamb being slaughtered and hands being nailed to a wall. Later, there is a moment when the character's anger literally melts the celluloid in half and towards the very end we get a moment where we see Ingmar Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist filming the scene we just saw. Still others play with the duality of these characters, blending them into one with different film techniques and one scene plays over again in duplicate suggesting…something.
Greater people than me have plumbed the depths of this film and found meanings that they can explain much better than I. Watch the film and seek those out. Some of them come right here with this Criterion Collection release. I’ll simply leave by saying Persona is a great film, one that should be watched and revered by any serious cinephile.
Criterion has done an absolutely brilliant job with this film. As is their usual, they’ve loaded it with extras. There is an excerpt from an interview with Begman, Andersson, and Ullman from Swedish television in 1966, and another interview with Bergman recorded for Canadian television in 1970. Liv Ullmann gave a new interview with Criterion about making Persona and how it changed her life. In another exclusive interview famed writer/director Paul Schrader discusses Persona and its place in film history.
Additionally there is 19 minutes of on-the-set footage with an audio commentary by Bergman scholar Bigitta Steene, plus a 2012 documentary about Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bertman, the film’s trailer, a visual essay, and a large booklet featuring an informative essay by film scholar Thomas Elaesser, an excerpted 1969 interview with Bergman, and an excerpt from a 1977 conversation with Bibi Andersson.
The film looks stunningly gorgeous. A few weeks ago I was discussing the benefits of Blu-ray with my brother-in-law. I noted that with more modern films that were intended for high definition you could really tell a difference, but with much older films I rarely found the improvement all that noticeable. Well, I stand corrected. Criterion has done an incredible job restoring this film. It is quite simply outstanding. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist is a poet with the camera, and this Blu-ray really recreates the beauty of this film.
As with most Bergman films, this one is pretty light on dynamic intensity in the audio department. There is a whole lot of talking and not much else. Still, Criterion has erased all signs of pops, cracks and hissing and made some pretty substantial monologues be heard without a hitch.
Persona is, admittedly, a difficult film to watch. Its plot is very simple but its message is hard to understand. It is a nuanced, symbolic, layered film that doesn’t make it easy for the casual viewer to enjoy. But it is also beautiful, poetic, and brilliant. Criterion has created the best-looking version of the film we’ll likely ever see. Their myriad of supplements dig deep into the making of the film and its many interpretations.