I remember my first Ingmar Bergman film… It was the Swedish drama Cries and Whispers. I remember sitting in my Intro to Film class and feasting my eyes on such a delicacy. With a film like that, you couldn’t help but notice this eerie and heavy aura. Well, it turns out Bergman’s films tend to lean that way in intensity (eg. The Virgin Spring and Through A Glass Darkly). Set of course in Sweden, we also have Bergman’s Persona. I must admit, this film was definitely more psychological than anything I have seen lately.
Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson) is a nurse who is skeptical at first if she is suitable to oversee patient Elisabet Vogler’s (Liv Ullmann) needs. A well-known stage actress, Vogler seems to have gone mute, despite no identifiable impairment. The head doctor soon sends off Alma and Elisabet to her cottage home by the sea until Alma has restored Mrs. Vogler to her normal self.
Elisabet begins to unwind there and Alma finds herself talking the time away to her. First over minuscule subjects like books, and then Alma begins to reveal her life struggles and emotions to Elisabet. It becomes a sort of bonding with Elisabet, to pour out her stories of infidelity and her subsequent abortion, all while Elisabet remains unresponsive to her. On her way to deliver letters to the post office, Alma decides to read an unsealed letter Elisabet wrote for the doctor. In it, Elisabet talks on how she is enjoying the stay with Alma and that she is analyzing and “studying,” her anxieties and troubles. Alma feels betrayed in a sense, and goes to confront Elisabet.
Past this point in Persona, it feels like a blurry back and forth dream. Tensions rise. Alma calls Elisabet out on her muteness and threatens to throw a hot pan at her, to which Elisabet, finally for a moment yells, “No!” With no progress there, the two go on, Alma infuriated at times and then begging for forgiveness. With Mr. Vogler paying a visit, Alma allows him to mistaken her for Elisabet, talks of their love for each other, and makes love to him with Elisabet in the room. Later, Alma exclaims to her:
“You are inaccessible. They said you were healthy, but your sickness is of the worst kind: it makes you seem healthy. You act it so well everyone believes it, everyone except me, because I know how rotten you are inside.”
But Alma seems to be molding into Elisabet (!!!) and that is where the psychological horror comes to play. It feels as though Alma’s ‘persona’ is deteriorating. Why does it feel like Elisabet has some sort of control over Alma? It even drives us crazy. Bergman’s film here follows the similar bleak tone as his other films mentioned earlier. Working once again with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, very minimalist visuals are captured and it blends all too well. Persona was created to be this strange masterpiece. I wouldn’t say that I’d watch the film again. I got a headache as soon as the film ended. (Is there such thing as a ‘good’ headache?) But it made me wonder, and so it definitely left an impression on me. What we have here is a very fragile kind of terror; one that ensues in the deepest corners of our soul. “Alma,” translates to the Latin word for “soul,” coincidentally. Given the tough psychological plot, Persona is quite a film.