Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films.   With 254 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go, Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  This week, he takes on Ingmar Bergman’s Persona.

This week’s film features a character study of the most artistic kind. This may not bring the excitement of a certain Cabin in the Woods, but what transpires during a small retreat to a seaside cottage is too psychologically intense and erotic to encapsulate within a short synopsis.  Bergman films are hard to digest, so don’t feel discouraged if things feel abstract, complicated, and/or confusing.  At times , we may not know what the hell is going on.  But the film awaken emotions.

The Players

  • Director: Ingmar Bergman
  • Writer: Ingmar Bergman
  • Cast: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann

The Plot

[Warning--Spoilers Ahead!!]

A young nurse, Sister Alma (Andersson), is asked to care for Elisabet Vogler (Ullmann), an actress who has become mute.  Alma follows orders to take Elisabet on a short retreat to a cottage house.  Gradually, as Elisabet benefits from this retreat, Alma begins to straddle the line between attacking Vogler and then vulnerably apologizing.  While one seems to be getting better, the other seems to be getting worse.  The turmoil between both women, the awkward moments of jealously, and the co-dependent nature of their relationship makes an identity crisis unfold.

The Good:

  • Film as ART: This is an art film in the most well intentioned meaning of the term.  Before the opening credits are over, you get more artistry than most “artistic” films achieve in 2 hours.  Within the first few minutes juxtaposed images seem unrelated, but in a weird way, there’s a seamless connection between them that feels cohesive.  We see a mound of snow, the profile of a man’s nose, a hand being nailed to a crucifix, and several flash frames of human faces.  This is a minimalist film, there is hardly any music, very few set changes, and out of five total actors appearing on screen, only two, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann’s characters, appear for more than a minute.  As Bergman once said, “The human face is the great subject of the cinema. Everything is there.”
  • Human Relationship:  There is an inverse relationship between Elisabet and Alma.  As one gets better, the other worsens.  Elisabet’s apathy seems to change through long walks, fishing, cooking, and letter writing.  Meanwhile, Alma gradually goes from discussing books and other subjects to more personal matters, revealing details about her past relationships and a wild infidelity with potentially major consequences for her marriage.  One seems to regain some normalcy while the other starts losing her mind, and to see their roles essentially reverse seems to indicate that a certain balance in their relationships is being maintained.
  • Erotic Dialogue:  There is a scene where Alma reveals participating in a ménage a quatre with young men at a beach.  Despite not showing any sexual imagery, Alma’s casual description, in her Swedish voice, is as erotic as language can get.  There is nothing vulgar in her description, but it’s shocking how hot this scene is.
  • Persona trivia:  Having written this film over a span of 9 weeks while recovering from pneumonia, Bergman viewed this film as one of his most important, claiming that it saved his artistic innovation and possibly his life.  This marked as one of maybe two times where Bergman worked in total freedom.   Some critics refer to this as “one of the great works of art of the 20th century”.  In 2010 it was ranked #71 in Empire magazines “The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema”.

The Bad:

  • Hard to Digest: The only “bad” thing I could say about this film is that it requires a level of sophistication that typically would require multiple viewings and/or a deeper familiarity with Bergman films.  Similar to acquiring a taste for wine, I believe it takes a more seasoned background in movie-watching to fully appreciate this film.  It is with the hope that all good films were easy and more easily accessible that I say this is a bad thing, if only temporarily.  Sometimes, certain insights require a bit of work.

Brief Words for Ebert:  As I write this, I get the feeling I’m not qualified to write about this film.  In your early years, you reviewed this film in 1967 and you point out the frustration that comes with trying to understand it.   In fact, this was one of the first films you ever reviewed.  And wow! What a tall order to sink your teeth into a Bergman film.  Thirty four years later, you had gained a deeper appreciation for Bergman, suggesting the best interpretation for Persona was a literal one.  I agree with you, and I will add that I  some films don’t require you to fully understand them in order to have an important emotional experience.  This is one of those films, one that humbles me in the presence of a seemingly deliberate manifestation of one person’s vision.  To watch this, I had to be open and in the mood to enter some dark emotional territory.  There is always uncharted emotional territory to explore, and I’m reminded of the following phrase I once heard, “While man has explored the moon, the oceans and the caves of our world, rare is the man willing to explore the abyss within himself”.  Persona is beautifully shot, with dialogue that is utterly poetic and each frame economically and artistically composed.  Moreover, I have to share with our readers a line you gave us, “Most of what we think of as “ourselves” is not direct experience of the world, but a mental broadcast made of ideas, memories, media input, other people, jobs, roles, duties, lusts, hopes, fears.”  Who are we? Who is anybody? What is real?  This is a film I will revisit over the years.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  GOOD

Do you like Persona?  Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad or Great?

Next week’s review:  Santa Sangre