A nurse takes care of a mute actress at an isolated island home, only to find their personalities begin melding together.
For the past several years, whenever anyone has asked me what my favorite film is, my answer has been “Persona”. It’s a film that might seem strange to hold in such high regard, because it’s such a unique experience, and it’s open to plenty of different interpretations. Indeed, every time I’ve returned to this picture I find I come away with something new, but even after my latest viewing, the film still succeeded in instilling in me a sense of profound wonder. Wonder about Bergman and the art of filmmaking in general, but more importantly wonder at what is beyond the physical universe- what lies in the metaphysical- what lies within us, makes us all tick, and defines who we are as human beings. This is a difficult film to fully appreciate the first, second, or even third time through- it’s a movie that makes you work to understand it, and even after multiple viewings, it still has scenes that I find difficult to grasp what Bergman intended to convey. This is a movie that has been described as ‘visual poetry,’ and I think that’s a very accurate description. For what’s in a poem but a collection of words arranged in a pleasing manner meant to convey a feeling or emotion? This film is a collection of images, meticulously crafted and arranged to convey a very specific idea or emotion with each image. I could go through each and every frame of the opening montage and discuss why I believe Bergman put the clip in his movie, because Bergman knew exactly how he was playing with his audience’s minds. If a poem is done well and read by the right reader, it will transcend the page, and become more than just words; it holds meaning to the reader that maybe the reader themselves can’t fully comprehend or describe. This film has done that for me- transcended celluloid- and for me it’s become something that is more an experience than a film.
“I think art has an enormous importance in life. Especially for people who are in difficulties of some time.”
After famous actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann, “Cries and Whispers”) goes inexplicably mute, a nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson, “Wild Strawberries”) takes Elisabet to a secluded location where the two try to figure out the reason for Elisabet’s sickness. While the two are alone, they bond and become closer.
I watched an interview with Bergman where he talked about where he got the idea for this film. He was undergoing surgery and had to be anesthetized. He talks about how slowly he felt his consciousness drift away until he existed in a state of non-existence. He talks about how he was asleep for six hours and he had no feeling of time or sense of self, and he said that that was a marvelous feeling. While on the surface, this film is about a nurse taking care of an actress who has gone inexplicably mute, the way that Bergman tells the story gives way to a few different interpretations.
(SPOILERS IN THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH)
The two interpretations that I see most for this film are that a) we take this story at face value, that Nurse Alma is taking care of the actress Elisabet, and we watch as the two personalities grow more similar as they are isolated from everyone else, and b) that Alma and Elisabet are one in the same person- two sides of one personality. I, personally, like the second interpretation more; it’s more symbolic of inner turmoil and personality change than a straight story for me, but I do think that both interpretations have a lot of merit. If we take the first interpretation, and Elisabet and Alma are two individuals, then this story is a look at how every person we meet influences our personality in some way- even if they don’t know it. Alma and Elisabet’s relationship starts jovially even though Elisabet refuses to speak. Alma naturally wants to fill in the silences, so she talks about herself and various topics, and many of topics she talks about are indicative of her personality (i.e. Her views on art, the distance of God, her feelings on love, and some of her deepest secrets). The entire time this happens Elisabet simply observes, but her personality starts to wear off on Alma whether she intends it to or not. We see this personality shift start slowly, but Bergman is great at giving us visual clues about what is happening inside the characters. There are many shots where the camera will be positioned in a way that seemingly merges the characters into one fluid being- the scene where Alma talks about learning to smoke is a great example.
While the first interpretation does hold some interesting meanings, the interpretation I prefer is the one that states the two might be representative of two personalities in one mind, struggling to figure out where they fit as a person. I love this interpretation because it sets Alma and Elisabet not as individuals working through a sickness, but two sides of an inner argument working through much more important questions: who am I, what do I believe, and how do I want to live in this world? There are dozens of visual clues hinting that Alma and Elizabet are one- as I’ve already mentioned, there are scenes where Bergman uses camera tricks to visually meld the two characters as one (Alma’s name even means soul in some languages). But there are also far greater clues to this revelation towards the end of the film, most prevalently when Mr. Vogler comes to the island and tries to speak to his wife, Elizabet. When Vogler speaks to Elizabet, it’s Alma that answers. Yes, Vogler is blind, but even though he can’t see, I’m sure he could tell his wife’s voice from another woman’s voice (one of the reasons I can’t only interpret this film as a straight thriller about a Nurse and her patient). Another interpretation I’ve seen is that, while Mr. Vogler might be ‘blind,’ the blindness is figurative- his blindness is meant to represent the fact that all of us are blind to the inner turmoil of others. So, while Mr. Vogler might be looking at his wife, he can’t see that inside she is struggling with two different personalities. Another reason I take this film to be more metaphorical vs strictly a story is the way that Bergman treats the sets and spatial relationships, particularly in some of the more heated scenes. One of my favorite examples of this is after Alma finds Elizabet’s letter to her husband, detailing secrets that Alma revealed while she was drunk. Alma, upset, confronts Elizabet while the two are having a picnic outside, but midway through the fight, the location is switched from exterior to interior. The transition from outside to inside happens on a slap, and the way that Bergman switches locations is so fluid that I didn’t even notice it the first time through (a testament to Bergman’s direction). The scene really helps drive home the fact that, while this is an isolated location with only two characters, that isolated location might be representative of a person’s mind. There are plenty of moments between the two characters that feel ethereal and dreamlike- many moments where the characters stop talking and simply stare at each other or touch each other in meaningful ways. All of the surreal aspects of the film lend themselves to something greater- the poetic visual nature; the way Bergman continuously interrupts the story with jarring scenes that remind you you’re watching a movie, the starting montage and the ambiguous ending- every time I get a different feeling or a different underlying message from the images. It makes it impossible to view this film the same way twice, and I honestly think that’s a mark of truly great art.
The opening scene of this film, to me, is a visual representation of the whole film. It’s a poem about a soul coming into existence- what it means to gradually become aware of life in general. The film fades out from black to show light- the darkness representing the concept of nonexistence coming into existence. The soul or person coming into existence first understands the concepts of fear (the spider) and desire (the penis- representing sexual desire). Things then begin to focus a bit more; we’re shown an upside down cartoon of a mother washing her face (perhaps indicative of first memories- things we don’t fully understand or comprehend- but that still hold meaning) and then we’re shown hands dancing across the screen, reaching for something (perhaps our first attempt to grasp at a greater meaning for our existence). We’re shown a silent film with a skeleton jumping out of a box- again representing our awareness of fears, maybe even representing our first brush with the concept of death. We see a clip of a sheep being slaughtered, representing our own eventual fate; and then we see Jesus’s hands being nailed to a cross- our chance at redemption, a chance to be spared from death. The montage then fades to shots of bodies lying on the table- the film seems more tangible- it feels grounded in the physical realm- a shift from the metaphysical concepts explored in the montage. We’re shown a young boy who can’t seem to get comfortable (he’s uncomfortable in his own skin). He reads a book before making eye contact with the camera- and then we’re shown what he sees: faces of other people. The last shot of this montage is the boy reaching out, trying to touch the faces he sees. To me, this whole montage is representative of the early years of our lives- coming into existence, slowly starting to understand the world around us, and the final part of this montage- the boy reaching out to try to touch others- is representative of us as individuals making choices that influence who we are and what kind of person we will be. The boy reaches out and tries to grasp at what is below the surface of each human individual- what is beyond the screen- what makes a person a person.
As I’ve said before, every time I watch this film I get something different. I’m sure there are things that I’ve missed- but that’s all right. Like a poem, the meaning behind it all is up to the viewer or reader. You can attribute as little or as much meaning to this film as you’d like, and no matter what, it still works on multiple levels. For me, personally, this is a film about so many things: the raw emotion and the pains we as humans go through while navigating life, about what is beyond the physical realms, and how every individual we meet has sway over who we are and who we might become.
As I try to finish this review, I find it painfully inadequate. This is, after all, my favorite movie, one that I’ve spent hours upon hours watching, more hours reading and watching analysis, and even more hours just pondering the things that happened in the film. This is a movie that I absolutely adore because it’s difficult to fully comprehend, and because it hits me on so many emotional levels. Franz Kafka said of books that the best ones should be ‘the axe for the frozen sea within us,’ meaning that books should hit us hard and make us reevaluate our lives and how we’re living; this is a film that does that to me. Every time I watch it, it makes me want to take a step back from my life and reevaluate my persona, and ask myself: Why do I do the things I do? What do I believe about the world? And most importantly who am I and who do I want to become?
Rewatching this movie last night has reaffirmed that it is my favorite film. It’s a movie that I think all cinephiles should see (it’s in Tarkovsky’s top ten if you need any more convincing). It is not an easy film- I’d say it gets more complex with more viewings- but it’s a film that is brilliantly conceived has wonderful meaning below the surface.
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