Criterion // 1966 // 83 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 3rd, 2014
A new film by Ingmar Bergman.
"Is it really important not to lie, to speak so that everything rings true?"
One day, an actress named Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullman, Autumn Sonata) suddenly forgets all of her lines and goes completely blank on stage. She apologizes to her fellow cast members and goes home. The next day, she finds herself entirely mute, though the reason for this seems to be psychological rather than physical. A nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson, Smiles of a Summer Night) has been hired to care for Elisabeth, and the two quickly begin to form a connection despite the fact that Alma is the only one speaking. Then...things get complicated.
My apologies for the vagueness of the above plot description, but the fact of the matter is that describing the plot of Persona is something of a fool's errand. After all, what seems to be the plot may not actually be the plot at all, but rather the dream of one of the characters (or even the director). Persona makes a habit of transforming, dissolving, re-forming and exploding over the course of its 83-minute running time, turning every moment into a visual Rorschach test and ultimately serving as a hallucinatory meditation on cinema, relationships and itself. It's a difficult film to understand, but nonetheless a consistently riveting one. In an older interview included on this Blu-ray release, Bergman himself admits that he doesn't particularly want people to understand it. "I don't want my films to be understood," he insists. "I want them to be felt."
Indeed, there's plenty of feeling here. The push-pull relationship between Alma and Elisabeth is fascinating; beginning in a manner which seems rooted in some measure of warmth and somehow evolving into something hostile. The relationship seems fairly one-sided at first, with the wise and knowing nurse attempting to aid the broken actress, but the tables begin to turn after a while, and the nurse becomes angry and desperate. Are both of these characters real? Is this just Alma's argument with a quiet piece of her own personality? Wait, why did the screen just burn up? Are we still watching the same story? Those look like the same characters, but...well, I'm not sure.
To see Persona is to witness a great director grappling with his own identity and attempting to find a vital new way to communicate. After spending a couple of decades wrestling with religion and man's relationship with God, Bergman finally resolved his feelings on those thorny subjects and no longer felt a need to continue exploring them. So what would he tackle, exactly? The opening of Persona seems to signal a sort of creative rebirth; beginning with an image which seems to signify the birth of cinema before leading viewers through a blink-and-you'll-miss-them series of images -- an old cartoon, a face, an erect penis, a bit of goofy slapstick, a nail in someone's hand -- then scenes of death, and a scene in which a young boy places his hand on a screen featuring alternating images of the two lead actresses (the first of many moments to suggest that these two women are ultimately the same, or at least intimately connected).
Typically, the supplements included with a Bergman film happily explain the significance and symbolism of every little element. There is a bit of that here (as in Peter Cowie's visual essay on the film's prologue, which informs us that the images of dead bodies were likely inspired by Bergman's stay in a hospital shortly before the script was written), but mostly we have a handful of experts wondering aloud what it all really means. Paul Schrader seems uncertain of the film's true meaning, but he is certain of its power and significance (he dubs it "the second shot heard round the world," claiming it's a film which builds on the collective statement of the French New Wave). I've seen Persona three times now and I'm no closer to understanding its mysteries than I was the first time, but Bergman's fervor, Sven Nykvist's stunning compositions, the raw performances of Andersson and Ullman and the sense that enlightenment is just slightly out of reach keeps me enthralled every time.
Persona (Blu-ray) sports a terrific 1.37:1/1080p full frame HD transfer which highlights the film's expressive black-and-white cinematography (a format Bergman stuck with as long as possible, though he certainly made stunning use of color in films like Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander). Detail is exceptional throughout, and blacks are deep and inky. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track is strong, too, presenting the dialogue and (frequently dissonant) score with sharpness and clarity. Supplements include the aforementioned visual essay from Peter Cowie, archival interviews with Bergman, Ullman and Andersson, new interviews with Ullman and Paul Schrader, eighteen minutes of silent behind-the-scenes footage, the tremendous feature-length documentary "Liv & Ingmar" (85 minutes) highlighting the relationship between the actress and the director, a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Thomas Elsaesser and interviews with Bergman and Andersson. You also get a DVD copy of the film + all of the extras. A typically stellar package from Criterion.
Persona is one of Ingmar Bergman's most elusive and dynamic films; a
bizarre, bewitching fever dream which remains as startling and potent as ever.
Check out Criterion's terrific Blu-ray set and explore its mysteries for
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Swedish)
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 1966
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Video Essay
* Archival Clips
* DVD Copy