Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), an actress, suddenly falls silent on stage. She is put in the care of Nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson), in a remote cottage by the seaside. As the days pass, Alma tries to break Elisabet’s silence, but soon becomes unsure of her own identity…
Persona is one of Bergman’s greatest works. For the most part a two-hander, the film relies heavily on its two lead actresses – Bergman and his regular DP Sven Nykvist making extensive use of facial close-ups – and they deliver career-peak performances in what must have been difficult roles. Ullmann is silent for almost the entire film, conveying volumes with her facial features alone. On the other hand, Alma talks a lot: Andersson’s long monologue about her own seduction on a beach is one of the screen’s great speeches. There’s an abstract feel to Bergman’s regular DP Sven Nykvist’s black and white photography, in particular his use of empty space.
There’s a dreamlike feel to the film, which is full of imagery that has an effect even if it’s not entirely explicable. In its theme of the transference and joining of identities, Persona has had considerable influence, quite possibly on Cammell and Roeg’s Performance and Altman’s 3 Women, amongst others. Lifelong Bergman fan Woody Allen parodied it in Love and Death. Persona is also notable for Bergman’s use of avant-garde film techniques. The film begins with a projector starting up and a prologue featuring some startling and horrific imagery (including a brief shot of an erect penis, censored on original release and now restored). At one particularly intense point, the film appears to break and “burn” in the projector (an effect reproduced by Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop). The intention is to “alienate” the audience by reminding them that they are watching a film, however engrossing it may be.
Persona is not the easiest of films, but it’s a compelling, intense and rewarding experience, here reissued in a new 35mm print.