Friday, September 19, 2008


Imagine spending all of your time with someone who refuses to speak. How would you react? Would you yourself cloister, decide to live a life of silence, refusing to interact minus gestures? Or, as is the case in Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966), would you feel safe with the silent one, provoking reactions just to engage her in a conversation, delving deep into your past, your psyche, your pool of emotions if only for the hope of momentary connection, reciprocation and understanding? Anyone who has fallen victim to the soul-wrenching heartache of unrequited love will no doubt identify with Nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) as she bares her soul to Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), an actress who has suddenly decided to "play the role" of a mute. The word Alma in Spanish means soul, a highly appropriate title for a character whose soul pours out every orifice from the very beginning of her interaction with Elisabet.

After showing a camera beginning to operate and exposing the nature of the projector, Bergman becomes highly experimental. The film begins with almost Eisensteinian montage sequence complete with very rapid cuts to textural, visceral, cold and sharp-edged vistas and scenes, all intended to remind the viewer they are indeed watching a film. All of these scenes are juxtaposed in such a way to make you aware of the beauty in the odd, the nature of the projector, and indeed the nature of filmmaking and screening itself. Some of these images are intended to evoke subliminal messages, others are present for their sheer beauty on screen. Slowly, the random events devolve into close-ups on different objects in a house, and it is a very sterile house indeed. Much of the film contains very sterile, cold, undecorated places until Elisabet and Alma begin their stay at the beach house.

Much can be said about the relationship between the two, but I wouldn't want to give too much away. It is at times intimate, at times malicious, at times filled with lunacy, sometimes even desperation. Bergman's cinematographer Sven Nykvist has a tendency to shoot in close-up, making watching this film on even the smallest of television screens effective, relateable, and intriguing. Both women betray one another, both women part without resolving their conflict, without apologizing, going their separate ways and on with their confused, somewhat broken lives.

Nykvist is almost as much responsible for the overall execution of this film as Bergman. Every single frame could be a photograph. Every one. The way he plays with lighting and shadows is almost painterly. He is a master of the wide shot, and even more so of the close-up. A friend watching this film with me described an essay he read about the way the Bergman-Nykvist team use the face as a landscape, which I think is the best way to describe some of the more intimate moments of high contrast, lingering close-up shots; using the contours of the face (the nose, the lips, the chin, the curve of the forehead) as a masking device as well as its own scenic vista.

Although highly experimental in nature, even jarring the audience half way through the film to remind them they are in fact watching a film by burning out the celluloid and cutting the minimal score, this film is visually a work of art. The majority of the dialogue exists in monologue, with Alma reaching out for Elisabet to open up the way she has with her, every bit of it well-crafted, insightful, beautiful prose. I'll leave you with an example of this; a speech given by a female doctor (one of the other three characters in the film besides the two women) to mute Elisabet explaining her personal grasp of the desperation of introspection and the human condition:

I understand, all right. The hopeless dream of being - not seeming, but being. At every waking moment, alert. The gulf between what you are with others and what you are alone. The vertigo and the constant hunger to be exposed, to be seen through, perhaps even wiped out. Every inflection and every gesture a lie, every smile a grimace.

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