After the striking, almost subliminal credits and a sequence of cryptic, disturbing imagery such as spiders, nails going through hands, a boy in a hospital cot, the film opens as Alma (Bibi Andersson), a nurse at a psychiatric hospital, is briefed on her newest patient, Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann). The latter, a stage actress, "froze" during a stage performance and has since stopped talking or communicating with other people. As no physical damage is found to her body, her seeming illness is diagnosed as psychological, and she is commited to the psychiatric wing. Thus, Alma cares for Elisabeth in the hospital, and a certain rapport is created between the two women. When the doctor recommends that the rich patient spend some time at a seaside villa, he sends Alma with her.
However, it is at this villa that things begin to shatter, as Elisabeth uses the rapport she has with Alma to begin a subtle manipulation of her mind. She is a psychic vampire, slowly draining the life and joy out of the weaker Alma and progressively imposing her own persona on her. However, the personality transference works both ways, as Alma begins to transfer her own personality into Elisabeth.
What truly amazes in Persona is the story's subtlety and fluidity. Bergman has always been known as a symbolic, often oblique director, but in Persona, his cryptic approach reaches its apotheosis. It is a film of striking, daunting ambiguity, and as such, it is definetly not an easy experience. However, it stands as a truly rewarding one, for Bergman has gifted the film with layer after layer of meaning and psychological insight.
In addition to being a brilliant work of storytelling, Persona also stands as one of the most vivid and important examples of Bergman's mastery of the medium, as he uses the different pieces of filmmaking with exemplary deftness. The visuals (photographed by long-time collaborator Sven Nykvist) are beautiful, their low-contrast, sometimes ethereal nature enhancing the ambigous feel of the film. Similarily, the use of music and the editing perfectly complement the style that Bergman chooses.
Finally, it is impossible to speak of Persona without mentioning the brilliant performances by the two lead actresses. As Alma, the vulnerable nurse, Bibi Andersson gives an evocative and convincing performance, and her progressive psychic transformation is perfectly illustrated by the talented actress. And as Elisabeth, in her first of many Bergman-directed roles, is magnetic and commanding as the mysterious, silent actress, conveying the great complexity of her character mostly through her facial expression and her eyes.
Persona may not be the most acessible of Bergman's masterpieces, but it is one of the best. Through Alma and Elisabeth, the great director explores the concepts of identity, of psychic evolution, and of trust, and thus shapes the film into a meaningful and fascinating essay that demands to be seen.
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