Ingmar Bergman's Persona is one of those fascinating films that you keep returning to, trying to uncover more of its mysteries and hoping it reveals more of its secrets. The beginning of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey captured the birth of man. Persona and its experimental beginning is said to have captured the death of the motion picture camera. Persona is the quintessential example of the art film, and they're several times within the story where Bergman is informing the audience what is real and what is fantasy. There is a break in the middle of the film as Bergman shows its camera turning back and beginning again, and at the end the camera completely runs out of film, and the light dies from the lamp of the projector, and the movie is over. There is also a moment near the climax where Bergman clearly shows the camera crew and sound operators on a crane filming the last sequence, which indicates that Bergman is reminding the audience that what we are witnessing isn't necessarily 'real,' and is quite simply, only a movie. Persona gives no clear answers, its conclusion is left ambiguous, the film is based more on interpretation, and what every audience member sees in the film can differ based upon each person's perspective. The story begins when an stage actress named Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann) stops speaking while in the middle of performing Electra, and will no longer speak again. A psychiatrist thinks it might be helpful if Elizabeth and Nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) spend the summer at her isolated house. While the two women are held up with one another within their own space and time, Alma tries to break the silence, by talking about trivial matters, which gradually leads to her talking about her own anxieties and fears, and into more personal secrets and torments which includes two powerful monologues: one highly sexual and full of extreme pleasure and excitement, and the other unbearably bleak, full of pain, bitterness and hate; as Bergman tells it again immediately afterwards, word for word, this time with the camera completely on Alma. Gradually the two women will ultimately start to merge, as Bergman emphasizes the two actresses similar appearances, especially in the eerie sequence in which Bergman superimposes the two women's faces, merging their facial features together to form one woman. Actress Bibi Andersson told film critic Roger Ebert that she had no idea Bergman was going to do this, and when she first saw the film she found that sequence extremely frightening and disturbing.
I realized the best approach when watching Persona is to try and not dissect every individual scene and instead try to focus on the underlying themes Bergman is trying to project between the power struggles within its two characters. Persona explores the roles a person chooses to play in their life and the questions one has about their own identity, all the while exposing the hidden secrets, sins and torments that we have in our pasts, buried secrets we keep to ourselves and rarely share with others. Bergman wrote Persona while recovering for nine weeks in a hospital from serious pneumonia, as a lot of the powerful scenes presented in the film were images Bergman dreamed of while being sick and severely depressed. Bergman writes in his book Images: "At some time or other, I said that Persona saved my life—that is no exaggeration. If I had not found the strength to make that film, I would probably have been all washed up. One significant point: for the first time I did not care in the least whether the result would be a commercial success..."
The screen is black and then a white bulb slowly lights up the camera equipment which leads to several bright flashes of light from the film projector and reel. Suddenly a burst of cinematic images quickly break through the screen including a tarantula spider, nailing of a crucifixion, silent comic strip reels, (scenes from Bergman's Prison depicting a man trapped in a room, being chased by Death and Satan), the slaughter of a lamb and for a brief second an erect penis (which brings to mind the sequence in David Fincher's Fight Club).
Then the scene shows a deserted hospital and inside a boy laying in a hospital bed next to several corpses with just the faint sound of water dripping and a phone ringing in the background. There's a shot of the boy getting up and looking right at the audience as he puts on his glasses and then slowly waves his hands back and forth in front of the lens wondering if anyone could be peering back at him. The next scene shows him looking up at a large screen with the vagueness of a person's facial features. He slowly puts up his hand to touch the screen and you can see the blurry features on the screen slowly change from what it looks like Elisabeth's features to Alma's who are the two main characters in the film. Suddenly the credits begin.
The story begins where a young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) is called in by her boss. Her boss describes a new patient Elisabeth Vogler (Ullmann) by saying, "Mrs. Vogler is an actress as you know. During her last performance of Electra, she fell silent and looked around as if in surprise. She was silent for over a minute. She apologized afterward, saying she had got the urge to laugh. The next day the theater rang, as Mrs. Vogler had not come to rehearsals. The maid found her still in bed. She was awake but did not talk or move. This condition has now lasted for three months. She has had all sorts of tests. She's healthy both mentally and physically. It's not even some kind of hysterical reaction..."
After her bosses discription of Mrs. Elisabeth Volger, Sister Alma then walks into Elisabeth's room and introduces herself as an 25 year old engaged woman who has graduated from nursing school two years ago. When Alma is asked by her boss to take care of this patient Alma has her doubts because she might not be able to handle her mentally. Alma says to her boss, "If Mrs. Volger's silence and immobility are her decision...that shows great mental strength I may not be able to cope."
That evening after struggling to fall asleep Alma turns on the light and looks at the camera. She then starts to talk to herself and yet it seems she is talking to the audience explaining how she is predestined to marry her fiancee Karl-Henrik and have a couple children, which she will probably have to take care of herself. Meanwhile, Elisabeth seems to be having a hard time sleeping as well pacing back and forth in her room; and she suddenly stumbles on a horrific violent TV newscast of a man during the Vietnam war lighting himself on fire.
The next morning Alma receives a letter from Elisabeth's husband and decides to open it and read it to her. She begins to but before the words in the letter get too grim Elisabeth snatches the letter away from Alma. The letter also came with a picture of Alma's son and Elisabeth takes the photo and rips it in half.
The head nurse comes in and says to Elisabeth, "Elisabeth, I don't think there's any point in your staying at the hospital. Since you don't want to go home, I suggest you and Sister Alma stay at my summer house by the sea. Don't you think I understand? The hopeless dream of being. Not seeming, but being. Every tone of voice a lie. Every gesture false. Every smile a grimace. Elisabeth, I understand why you're silent, why you don't move. Your lifelessness has become a fantastic part. I understand and I admire you. I think you should play this part until its done...until it's no longer interesting. Then you can leave it as you leave all your roles."
Sister Alma agrees to take Elisabeth to her bosses cottage house and when the two arrive Elisabeth starts to relax a little and the two of them cook, write letters and take long walks near the ocean or relax by the cottage and read. One scene I found quite interesting is the passage Alma reads to Elisabeth in a book she is reading: "The anxiety we carry with us, all are broken dreams, the explicable cruelty, the fear of death. The cries of our faith and doubt against the darkness and the silence are terrible proof of our loneliness and fear. Do you think it's like that?" Elisabeth nods yes and Alma answers back, "I don't believe that." (Those passages she read bring up all Bergman's themes that he uses in most of his films, and I'm quite sure he believed the words that she was reading.)
Because of Elisabeth remaining silent all this time with just the both of them alone together out at the cottage, Alma starts to feel the need to start talking. Alma talks and talks, and starts out casually about simple things like her schooling and her job but her comfortableness with Elisabeth leads her into talking about more personal and in-depth issues like her anxieties with her fiancé, Karl.
Into the night Alma enjoys Elisabeth's company and loves that she's willing to listen to her thoughts and problems. Alma tells Elisabeth, "People tell me that I'm a good listener. Isn't that strange? Nobody ever bothered to listen to me. Not the way you do now. You listen. I think you're the first real person to listen to me. It feels so good to talk. It feels so warm and nice. I've never been in a mood like this before. I've always wanted a sister. I only have brothers." Alma then says she feels she's grown attached to Elisabeth, and late that evening while drinking Alma eventually goes into a much more personal story of her cheating on her husband.
This scene of Alma reenacting a very sexual and somewhat erotic story of her and another woman involved in a ménage à trois with two younger boys is a powerful scene. She starts her intense story while Elisabeth calmly listens:
"One day Karl-Henrik had gone into town. I went to the beach on my own. It was a warm and nice day. There was another girl there. She had come from another island because our beach was sunnier and more secluded. We lay there completely naked and sunbathed...dozing off and on, putting sunscreen on. I lay there...looking out at the landscape at the sea and the sun. Suddenly I saw two figures on the rocks above us. They hid and peeped out occasionally. 'Two boys are looking at us,' I said to the girl. Her name was Katarina. 'Let them look,' she said, and turned on her back. I wanted to jump up and put my suit on but I just lay there on my stomach with my bottom in the air, unembarrassed, totally calm. And Katarina was next to me with her breasts and big thighs. She was just giggling. I noticed that the boys were coming closer. They just stood there looking at us. I noticed they were very young. The boldest one approached us...and squatted down next to Katarina. I felt very strange. Suddenly Katarina said to him, 'Hey, you, why don't you come over here?' Then she took his hand and helped him take off his jeans and shirt. Suddenly he was on top of her. She guided him in and held his butt. The other boy just sat and watched. I heard Katarina whisper in the boy's ear and laugh. His face was right next to mine. It was red and swollen. Suddenly I turned and said, 'Aren't you coming to me, too?' He pulled out of her and...then fell on top of me, completely hard. He grabbed my breast. It hurt so much! I was overwhelmed and came almost immediately. Can you believe it? I wanted to tell him to be careful not to make me pregnant...when he came. I felt something I'd never felt in my life...how his sperm was shooting inside me. He held my shoulders and bend backwards. I came over and over. Katarina lay there watching and held him from behind. After he came, she took him in her arms and used his hand to make herself come. When she came, she screamed like a banshee. The three of us started laughing. We called to the other boy, who was sitting on the slope. His name was Peter. Katarina unbuttomed his pants and started to play with him. And when he came, she took him in her mouth. He bend down and kissed her back. She turned around, and took his head in both hands, and gave him her breast. The other boy got so excited that he and I started all over again. It was just as nice as before. Then we had a swim and went our separate ways. When I came home, Karl-Henrik was already back from town. We had dinner and some red wine...then we had sex. It had never been that good, before or after. And I got pregant, of course. Karl-Henrik, studying to be a doctor, took me to a colleague who carried out the abortion."
Elisabeth sits and listens to Alma all night and Alma isn't sure how she feels about what she did and why it happened but she starts to break down and cry, and Elisabeth consoles her during her pain. While sobbing Alma asks Elisabeth, "Is it possible to be one and the same person at the same time? I mean, two people?" That night probably after having too much to drink Alma tells Elisabeth, "Imagine, talking incessantly. I've been talking and you've been listening. How boring of you. What could possibly interest you about my life? I should be like you."
Later that night there's a scene of Alma passed out at the table and you can hear a slight whisper of what I believe was Elisabeth saying to her, "You ought to go to bed, or you'll fall asleep at the table", but Alma dismisses it as a dream.
Later on that night comes one of the great haunting shots of the film, which I believe is clearly a surreal dream sequence. Elisabeth floats into Alma's room like a ghost and Alma slowly gets up from her bed and they both console each other, which gives off some hints of love or attraction for one another. They then look at us (the audience) through the camera lens as they put their heads together comparing both their features and looks. Elisabeth sensually brushes Alma's hair back like they're both looking examining themselves in a mirror, making this shot one of the most eerie sequences of the film.
The next morning Alma and Elisabeth are taking snapshots near the shore and Alma asks Elisabeth if she spoke to her the other night and if she was in her room, with Elisabeth denies it by shaking her head no. That afternnon Alma drives into town to drop off some letters that Elisabeth had written to her family. While driving into town and out of curiosity because they weren't sealed Alma pulls over to read what Elisabeth had written. She is shocked when she discovers that Elisabeth wrote telling other's about Alma's personal stories. Alma believed she told Elisabeth those personal stories and secrets in confidence and is also angry when Elisabeth describes in her letters that she was analyzing Alma and studying her.
Alma returns to the cabin without mailing her letters, and is so furious she breaks a bottle on the footpath and purposely leaves a piece of glass there for Elisabeth to step on. When Elisabeth eventually does which causes her foot to bleed, her gaze meets Alma's knowingly, and suddenly...the film itself breaks apart, tears and burns: the screen flashes of white, as scratch marks appear up and down the image, the sound rises and screeches, and the film (and it's character's) completely reverse, unwind and reconstruct, putting itself back together, as brief flashes of the prelude reappear for fractions of a second. The screen goes blank. Then the film reconstitutes itself. This sequence mirrors the classic intro of the film, as the projector lamp flares to life, and there is a montage from the earliest days of the cinema which include eerie images of silent skeletons, coffins, a hand with a nail being driven into it. The middle break ends with the camera moving in toward an eye, so close that its audience feels they are penetrating the inner veins of the eyeball... When the film resumes, it is following Elisabeth through the house with a thick blur on the lens. The image clears up with a sharp snap of the frame while she looks out the window before walking outside to meet Alma, who is still very bitter at her.
At lunch, Alma begs Elisabeth to speak and say at least something to her. "Would you like to make me really happy?" Alma asks Elisabeth. "I just want you to talk to me. Nothing special. Dearest, please, can't you say one word?" When Elisabeth does not react and speak, Alma flies into a hysterical rage and tells Elisabeth "I knew you would refuse. I thought great artists had great compassion for people. You have used me. For what, I don't know. You've hurt me badly. Yes, I read the letter that you wrote to the doctor. You made me talk. You made me talk about things I've never told anybody. And you told. What a study, eh? You're going to talk!"
Alma suddenly grabs Elisabeth to try to force her to say something but Elisabeth fights back and hits Alma causing Alma's nose to bleed. Alma follows Elisabeth into the house and in retaliation, Alma grabs a pot of boiling water off the stove and is about to fling it at Elisabeth, but stops suddenly after hearing Elisabeth scream out in fear of being hit, "NOO!!" Alma stops and puts the pot down and is satisfied she finally got Elisabeth to speak, telling her she wouldn't have spoken if she had not feared for her life.
Alma heads to the restroom and cleans herself up and she suddenly breaks down and cries realizing Elisabeth has gotten the best of her. Alma walks out of the restroom and again insults Elisabeth by saying, "Your unapprachable. The doctor said you're healthy, but I wonder about your madness. You're acting healthy so well that everyone believes you. Everyone but me, because I know how rotten you are." Elisabeth is hurt by Alma's comments and tries to walk away, but again Alma follows her outside of the cabin. Elisabeth starts to run down the beach, and Alma chases her begging for forgiveness with the camera following in one long take. Elisabeth chooses not to accept Alma's apology and runs off from her with Alma yelling, "You don't want to forgive me because you're too proud!" Alma then breaks down and collapses on the shore crying.
That night, before Elisabeth falls asleep she looks at a famous tragic photograph taken from the Warsaw guetto, of Jews being rounded up. Elisabeth is horrified by the photograph as the shot lingers on a small boy with an expression of fear and confusion in the young boys eyes. When Elisabeth falls asleep Alma walks into her room and watches her peacefully sleep, analyzing her face and the scars she covers with makeup.
Suddenly Alma hears a man outside, and finds Elisabeth's husband, Mr. Vogler (Gunnar Björnstrand) in the garden. Mr. Vogler mistakes Alma for his wife Elisabeth, as he says, "the doctor has explained things. But it's hard to explain to your little boy. There's something deep down, difficult to get a grip on. You love somebody, or say you do...it's tangible, like words." Alma says to Mr. Vogler, "Mr. Vogler, I'm not your wife." He ignores what Alma is saying and keeps speaking to her believing he is talking to his wife. Elisabeth enters the shot from behind and listens to their conversation. Elisabeth's husband tells Alma about his love for her and the son they have together repeating words he wrote to Elisabeth in the letter. Elisabeth stands quietly beside the two, and slowly takes Alma's hand having her tenderly rub Mr. Vogler's face somehow controlling Alma like a puppet and getting her to say, "I love you as much as ever."
Alma suddenly accepts the role as Elisabeth and the mother of Elisabeth's child and Alma and Mr. Vogler embrace eachother and kiss while Elisabeth watches and listens. That evening Alma makes love with Elisabeth's husband while Elisabet is sitting quietly next to the bed with a look of panic on her face. That night Alma starts crying laying in the arms of Elisabeth's husband, screaming, "I'm cold and rotten and indifferent. It's all lies and imitation!" The camera pans a close up on Elisabeth as suddenly the picture becomes white.
The next morning Alma catches Elisabeth in the kitchen with a sad expression on her face, holding the picture of her son that she originally tore up. Alma sit's down and asks Elisabeth to finally tell her the story of her and her son. Elisabeth doesn't want to so Alma say's she will then tell it for her:
"In the early hours someone said to you, Elisabet you have everything as a woman and as an artist, but you lack motherlessness. You laughed because you thought it was ridiculous...but you couldn't stop thinking about what he had said. You grew more worried...so you let your husband make you pregnant. You wanted to be a mother. When you knew it was definite, you became afraid, afraid of responsiblity, afraid of being tied down, afraid to leave the theatre...afraid of pain, afrain of dying, afraid of your swelling body. But all the time you acted, played the part of the happy expectant mother. And everybody said, 'She has never been this beautiful.' You tried several times to get rid of the fetus. But you failed. When you knew it was inevitable, you started to hate the child and wished it would be stillborn. You wished that the baby would be dead. You wanted a dead child. It was a long and difficult delivery. You suffered for days. The baby was delivered with forceps. You looked with disgust at your screaming child and whispered, 'Can't you die soon? Can't you die?' But he survived. The boy screamed day and night...and you hated him. You were afraid. You felt guilty. In the end, relatives and a nanny took care of the boy, and you could leave your sickbed and return to the theater. But the suffering wasn't over. The boy was seized by a massive and unfathomable love for his mother. You resisted desperately...because you felt that you could not return it. You try...and try...but the meetings with him are cruel and awkward. You can't do it. You're cold and indifferent. And he looks at you. He loves you and he is soft and you want to hit him for not leaving you alone. You think he's repulsive, with his thick lips and ugly body and his moist and pleading eyes. You think he's repulsive and you're afraid... "
The monologue goes on for some time with the camera only focusing on Elisabeth. After the story is finished, the exact monologue is again repeated except this time the camera is now focused on Alma. During this sequence they're four different camera shot's within both of the repeated scenes. The first shot is an over the shoulder shot. The next shot is a medium shot. The third shot is a close-up. Then finally for the fourth shot the camera zooms in and emphasizing the details in each woman's facial features.
After Alma is done describing Elisabeth's story she stops for a moment coming to the realization she is greater identical to Elisabeth saying, "No I'm not like you. I don't feel the same as you. I'm Sister Alma, I'm only here to help you. I'm not Elisabeth Vogler!!! Gradually the two of women will ultimately start to merge, as Bergman emphasizes the two actresses similar appearances and even Alma says so earlier on in the film. Bergman emphasizes this similarity in a disturbing shot where he combines half of one face with half of the other right after Almas' monologue. Bergman superimposes the two women's faces, merging their facial features together to form one woman, and it is a truly frightening image.
In one of the strangest sequences in the film Alma leaves the cottage, and later returns, to find that Elisabeth has become completely catatonic. In a very morbid scene Alma gets furious and randomly starts slapping and beating Elisabeth which seems to put Elisabeth under a spell where after Alma cuts her wrist with her nails has Elisabeth suck her blood from her arm. This disturbing scene has a very gothic horror feel and I believe it somewhat symbolizes that Elisabeth is a vampire in control and Alma is the frail weak victim.
After that strange occurance Alma starts packing her things in the early morning and decides to leave the cottage alone by getting on a bus. During this scene of her leaving the camera turns away from her to actually show the crew and director filming the scene that we are watching. Bergman clearly shows the camera crew filming the end shot of the film, showing the camera operators themselves on a crane, which indicates to me Bergman is reminding the audience that this isn't 'real' and that the images you are seeing in the film are clearly surreal and not based in reality.
The film projector shown at the beginning of the film finally breaks down and the bulb burns out as the screen goes completely black; ending the movie.
When watching Persona for the third time I realized that the best way to approach the film is a simple one. To not try and literally analyze and pick apart every scene, and to instead try to focus on the overall underlying themes Bergman is trying to project between the power struggles within its two characters.
There is one famous dream sequence in the film, which occurs late in the evening after we think we hear Elisabeth spoke to Alma who is passed out at the kitchen table as she says, "You ought to go to bed, or you'll fall asleep at the table." Alma dismisses that as her dream and continues to sleep. Later on that night Elisabet floats into Alma's bedroom like a ghost in the night, which is beautifully shot looking like a soft pale light entering the room. Alma automatically gets up out of her bed, giving the audience the impression that she is either sleep-walking or slightly hypnotized under Elisabeth's spell, and the two of them console each other.
This surreal like dream sequence (or not, this scene is widely debated) gives off a strong lesbian vibe as the two women feel a strong sexual attraction to one another. The two women look at us (the audience) through the cameras lens as they put their heads together comparing both the similarities of looks and features, and Bergman emphasises these similarities. Elisabeth sensually brushes Alma's hair back like they're both looking examining or posing themselves in a mirror, making this shot one of the most eerie shots of the film.
Another dream sequence that could or could not be a dream, is where Alma suddenly hears a man outside, and finds Elisabeth's husband, Mr. Vogler in the garden. Mr. Vogler mistakes Alma for his wife Elisabeth, and Alma tries to explain to him and she is not his wife, but throughout this sequence Elisabeth will guide Alma's motions like a puppet and suddenly Alma will accept the role as Elisabeth and the mother of Elisabeth's child, as the Mr. Vogler and Alma embrace one another and make love all the while Elisabeth sits by and watches.
Throughout the film Alma starts to open up to Elisabeth and talk and talk, sharing and revealing all her secrets and past torments and sins. Alma enjoys Elisabeth's company and loves that she's willing to listen to her thoughts and problems, probably because most people seem to want to speak, but rarely want to listen to others. Throughout the night Alma's comfortability and trust start to set in with Elisabeth and she starts to delve into a highly sexual and explicit story of an ménage à trois and how she had to later abort the baby.
This daring and erotic confession explores how there was a brief moment in Alma's life where she found herself completely happy. This highly sexual and explicit monologue sequence which is full of extreme pleasure and excitement was so powerful that many people have described this scene as if they actually saw it in the film. Bergman is showing the audience that words can create more powerful and haunting long-lasting images through the person's imagination, then to actually present it to them in the movie.
Alma feels threatened when her weaknesses are exposed in the film and the two women being alone out at an abandoned cottage is a perfect chance to have Alma finally expose them to her. When Alma decides to read Elisabeth's letters to home, (which she shouldn't have done) Alma discovers that Elisabeth has been studying and analyzing her. Alma is furious that she was taking advantage of and made out to look like a fool, because she revealed to Elisabeth several secrets of her personal life and trusted her with her confidentiality. Maybe Elisabeth's decision to take a code of silence was the smart thing to do because she now has the upper hand in the power struggle between her and Alma, because Alma had revealed secrets to her she probably doesn't want anyone else to know about.
Alma already knows Elisabeth has a slightly stronger will than her, because earlier in the film she stated to her advisor that remaining silent would be something she could never be strong enough to pull off. When Alma realizes that her patient is using her as the clinical study she comes to the conclusion that maybe she could be sicker then Elisabeth. She confirms it when Alma purposely leaves a piece of broken glass on the pavement for Elisabeth to step on. When Elisabeth steps on the glass and cuts herself, the two lock eyes, and Elisabeth discovers that Alma had done that on purpose. Elisabeth has finally emotionally gotten to Alma, causing her to visuouslly act out unprofessionally and abandon the discipline of her profession. This is a major victory for Elisabeth, because she has just proved to Alma that Alma could be as sick or more sick than her patient.
The exact moment Elisabet and Alma give one another eye contact is the pivotal moment in the film where everything completely changes. Suddenly Bergman allows his film to tear and burn. The screen goes black, and the film (and its character's) completely reverse and reconstruct, putting itself back together from the beginning. This sequence mirrors the classic intro of the film, as the projector lamp flares to life, and there is a montage from the earliest days of the cinema which include eerie images of silent skeletons, coffins, a hand with a nail being driven into it. The middle break ends with the camera moving in toward an eye, so close that its audience feels they are penetrating the inner veins of the eyeball.
Eventually Elisabeth gets Alma to throw another fit of rage, but during this round it seems that Alma becomes the victor. Alma is so angry at Elisabeth that she furiously is about to throw a pot of boiling water in her face. "NO!!" Screams Elisabeth! Alma is extremely happy that she finally has gotten Elisabeth to say something, (even though there were moments earlier where we've heard Elisabeth speak, but that could have simply been parts of a dream sequence.) When Elisabeth finally says a word because of fear for her life, she admitted several things to Alma and herself: She admitted she was afraid, she didn't want to feel pain, and most importantly...she does exist.
Even though Elisabeth seems to be the stronger and more determined woman of the two, she still has several fears and weaknesses that she reveals to the audience, both times while being alone. The first time is when she witnesses a shot of a man on TV during the Vietnam war, who kills himself by lighting himself on fire. The second time is her looking at a photograph from the Warsaw ghetto, of Jews being rounded up, and the shot lingers on the face of a small boy. (This scene also shows Bergman’s childhood infatuation with Hitler, while growing up which deeply tormented him.) Maybe all the horrors in the world convinced Elisabeth to stop speaking and to remain silent because of not wanting to express any more pain and grief. For Alma, the horrors are closer to home and her grief and pain come from her doubts of her validity as a fiancee, her ability as a nurse and her weakness against Elisabeth.
The second powerful monologue in the film is the exact opposite of the first one. This monologue is unbearably bleak, full of pain, bitterness and hate. Alma exposes Elisabeth's hatred for her son, and her failure as a mother. She describes to Elisabeth on how she didn't originally want her child, and had on numerous occasions try to get an abortion. The child was born deformed, and Elizabeth left him with relatives so she could return to the theater, which was something she loved much greater than her own child. The monologue goes on for some time with the camera only focusing on Elisabeth.
After the story is finished, the exact monologue is again repeated word for word, this time the camera is now focused on Alma. I believe this isn't Bergman simply trying to shoot the film both ways, as has been suggested, but literally both women telling the same story, except when it is Elisabeth's turn, she has Alma speak for her. During this sequence they're four different camera shot's within both of the repeated scenes. The first shot is an over the shoulder shot. The next shot is a medium shot. The third shot is a close-up. Then finally for the fourth shot the camera zooms in and emphasizes the details in each woman's intense facial features. After Alma is done describing Elisabet's story she stops for a moment, and suddenly makes the horrifying discovery that the two of them are greatly similar, and in some ways might be the same woman. "No I'm not like you. I don't feel the same as you. I'm Sister Alma, I'm only here to help you. I'm not Elisabeth Vogler!!!
Gradually the two of women will ultimately start to merge, as Bergman emphasizes the two actresses similar appearances and even Alma says so earlier on in the film. Bergman emphasizes this similarity in a disturbing shot where he combines half of one face with half of the other right after Almas' monologue. Bergman superimposes the two women's faces, merging their facial features together to form one woman, and it is a truly frightening image. Andersson told film critic Roger Ebert that she had no idea Bergman was going to do this, and when she first saw the film she found that sequence extremely frightening and disturbing. Bergman once told Ebert, "The human face is the great subject of the cinema. Everything is there." This is the pivotal moment in the film when both women come to the realization that they are both failures as mothers, and equally weak human beings.
They're several different interpretations to the film, with one critic pointing out on how Persona was similar to a horror movie. I can understand those comparisons on Persona being slightly similar to a horror film, especially the strange and bizarre sequence that occurs near the end of the film. Alma leaves the cottage, and later returns, to find that Elisabeth has become completely catatonic. In a very morbid scene Alma gets furious and randomly starts slapping and beating Elisabeth which seems to put Elisabeth under a spell where after Alma cuts her wrist with her nails and has Elisabeth suck her blood from her arm. This disturbing sequence has a very Gothic vampire like horror feel and I believe it somewhat symbolizes that Elisabeth is a vampire who dominates and is in control and Alma is the frail weak victim who is even psychologically more sick than her own patient.
Persona's stark haunting images of light and shadow, and it's beautiful black and white cinematography are brilliantly done by the legendary Sven Nykvist, as he creates an intensity and creepy eeriness throughout the entire picture. Much of the brilliant cinematography that was shot by Sven Nykvist is dominated by extreme contrast and lighting and beautiful composition shots with the cottage scenes being drenched by intense sunlight which washes the image out in a white glare. The two actresses also wear solid black outfits, simple hairstyles, and no make-up, which makes for an interesting contrast to the bright outdoor shots and of the rough geometric shapes and textures of the rocks and of the sand.
Bergman held Persona to be one of his most important films and in his book Images, he writes: "Today I feel that in Persona—and later in Cries and Whispers—I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover." Bergman stated at one time he fell into a deep depression by his own film's and couldn't watch them anymore: "At some time or other, I said that Persona saved my life—that is no exaggeration. If I had not found the strength to make that film, I would probably have been all washed up. One significant point: for the first time I did not care in the least whether the result would be a commercial success."
Bergman wrote Persona during nine weeks while recovering from serious pneumonia. A lot of the powerful visuals in the film were images Bergman dreamed of while being severely sick and depressed in the hospital, and when recovering he knew he had to get these images put up on the screen. During filming Bergman wanted to call the film A Bit of Cinematography. His producer suggested something more accessible and the title of the film was changed. Persona is a very small film with only five actors who appear onscreen. Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann are the only ones to appear for more than a minute, and Ullmann only speaks fourteen words in the film. There are no dressing-props; only items the characters use are shown onscreen.
Two scenes were frequently cut from several versions of the film; a brief shot at the beginning depicting an erect penis, and segments of Alma’s nighttime monologue about her abortion and ménage à trois (the American print makes no reference to ages; in the original, it is implied that they are twelve or thirteen). When MGM archivist John Kirk restored Persona he worked with the original, uncensored version and put in the brief shot of the erect penis. He also created new subtitles by commissioning several language experts to give new, accurate translations for the dialogue; this is particularly noticeable during Alma’s graphic sexual descriptions, which some were reluctant to translate without toning down the language.
Persona has been interpreted in many ways and has been the subject of long-standing debates among film fans as well as critics. Critic Susan Sontag suggests that Persona is constructed as a series of variations on a theme of "doubling". The subject of the film is "violence of the spirit". Film scholar P. Adams Sitney offers a completely different reading, arguing that "Persona covertly dramatizes a psychoanalysis from the point of view of a patient". Lloyd Michaels sums up what he calls the most widely held view of Persona’s content. According to this view, Persona is "a kind of modernist horror movie." Elisabeth’s condition, described by a doctor as "the hopeless dream to be", is "the shared condition of both life and film art". Bergman and Elisabeth share the same dilemma: they cannot respond authentically to "large catastrophes" (such as the Holocaust or the Vietnam War). The actress Elisabeth responds by no longer speaking: by contrast the filmmaker Bergman emphasizes that "necessary illusions" enable us to live.
Persona is Bergman's first film that took a wildly different step in his already successful career. This was probably Bergman's most creative and experimental art film and throughout the rest of his movie career Bergman never made a film quite as strange, ambiguous or mysterious. Like most art film director’s Bergman’s films always tend to leave a personal signature mark and its themes that are presented within the framework of the story are more personally intertwined with the director himself. Persona also shifted away from Bergman’s older fundamental themes on the questions of God and faith and explored more the questions of the psyche and of the human mind. Psychotherapy, sexuality and relationships were themes Bergman started to explore more after Persona and would keep exploring for several more decades with films like The Passion of Anna, Shame, Cries and Whispers and Scenes from a Marriage.
Persona is considered one of Bergman's greatest films and one of the greatest experimental films in the world. It was included in The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made, and in 2010, was ranked #71 in Empire magazines The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema. Robert Altman's impressionist film 3 Women was heavily influenced by Persona as the actresses of Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek also gradually begin to shift roles. Bergman's film Persona heavily influenced several of David Lynch's surrealism film's especially Lynch's masterpiece Muholland Drive. Muholland Drive is a story on two woman, one an actress questioning her identity, and features a lesbian theme that was only slightly suggested with Bergman's Persona. Persona is about the roles a person chooses to play in their life and the questioning of their own identity. It's also about the hidden secrets and torments in our pasts that we keep to ourselves and which we rarely share with others. Even though Alma and Elisabeth are completely different women, when carefully looking closer and studying the two of them they seem too have many similarities, which can make anyone question if they are in fact one of the same person. They both are failing mothers, where Alma aborted her baby and has to now suffer through the guilt and shame of burying such a secret from her fiancee. Elisabet can't hold a loving relationship with her son, and her feelings towards him are filled with only disgust and contempt. Maybe the boy in the beginning of the prologue who touches the screen is a symbol of both of their children and is metaphorical on their selfhness and failings as a mother. Bergman admitted on several occasions the failings he had as a father and many times put his stage and film career before his family and children, which is strikingly similar to the character of Elisabeth, who loathed her newborn son because she was terrified he would eventually keep her from performing on the stage. Persona is a surrealistic nightmare about the illusions of oneself and about the sins, regrets, lusts, guilt and hate that we bury deep below our subconscious. Maybe were all like Elisabeth, actors and actresses who carry on an identity and live out a particular role that we believe summarizes who we really are. Or maybe this film is really about Bergman and his emotional breakdown of himself as an artist, and the role that he has lived and the torments he had to endure. That's the amazing quality about Persona, is that there is more than one interpretation you can get when watching this extraordinary film. Like Alma said earlier in the story, "Is it possible to be one and the same person at the same time? I mean, two people?" Well is it possible to see a film one way and see it a completely different way also at the same time? I mean...two different films?