Persona: Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 meditation on the nature of identity and the medium of cinema

Prahlad Srihari

October 30, 2018 16:02:42 IST

By mid-1960s, Ingmar Bergman had given up on his quest to understand God's silence and moved on to find answers to other intimidating metaphysical questions — about identity, gender and sexuality. Recovering from a nasty bout of pneumonia, the Swedish master filmmaker began working on what would go on to become his most unapologetically experimental film - Persona (1966).

Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in one of the most iconic images from Ingmar Bergman's Persona

A film pliable to an endless number of interpretations and one that necessitates multiple viewings to truly appreciate its psychological depth, its dazzling camerawork and its two equally mesmerising acting performances. One of his most ambitious films, Persona's influence can be seen in the works of other notable filmmakers of both past and present — such as Robert Altman (3 Women), Krzysztof Kieslowski (The Double Life of Véronique), David Lynch (Mulholland Dr.), Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) and Lars von Trier (Melancholia).

Persona — "a sonata for two instruments" as Bergman called it — tells the story of popular stage actress Elizabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann), who has suddenly gone mute following a nervous breakdown. So, she is assigned a young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) to be her caretaker and the two are asked to move into a seaside cottage together to help Elisabet recover.

In this isolated setting, Elisabet's passivity and silence helps Alma open up about her life, her plans for the future and — in an emotionally cathartic moment — a long-held secret about an orgy which ended in pregnancy and abortion. Their relationship almost becomes spiritual, causing an emotional transference as Elisabeth finds in Alma a reflection of her own inner torment and conflict with motherhood. As their roles begin to blur and identities begin to overlap, they also start to look more and more similar.

Bergman maintains a stark contrast of bright whites and deep blacks throughout Persona

Bergman maintains a stark contrast of bright whites and deep blacks throughout Persona

Bergman uses a stream-of-conscious meta-narrative to question the cinematic medium's ability to tell the absolute truth. As we try to figure out if these two interdependent women are a single person or separate entities, he turns the film on its head by breaking the fourth wall between the characters and the viewer — highlighting how we temporarily escape from reality to enter this dream world created by cinema.

In Persona, Bergman and his ace cinematographer Sven Nykvist conjure up some truly unforgettable images of gorgeous expressionistic reveries - emphasised by a stark contrast of bright whites and deep blacks. This duality persists throughout the film with poorly lit indoor scenes and sunlit outdoor scenes. Each image, with its lighting and use of shadows, renders a surreal quality to it and reflects the psychological state of the two characters. Bergman almost exclusively uses either intense facial close-up shots or lingering long shots. These close-ups of Ullmann and Andersson's faces are mostly half-lit with one half covered in shadow, again to highlight the light/dark dichotomy. They foreshadow the film's now famous culmination in a split-screen image of their faces — revealing their uncanny physical resemblance and signifying how their shared memories have virtually turned them into one person with two masks.

Taking its title from the Carl Jung's idea of the "persona", Bergman's film deals with — what the famed Swiss psychoanalyst described as — the various 'social masks' that we wear or the deceptive 'identities' we chose to project to others in order to hide our true nature. Interestingly, he uses Jung's idea to examine the very nature of the medium of cinema.

Bibi Andersson, Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann on set of Persona

Bibi Andersson, Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann on set of Persona. Image via Facebook

Following the opening montage, we see a bespectacled boy caressing the blurry images of a woman’s face on a large screen. This is Bergman reminding the viewer that the film you are about to see is in no way an objective representation of reality but an artist's rendition — an artist with a social mask and deceptive identity of his own. As Thomas Elsaesser writes in an essay about the film for The Criterion Collection, "cinema is a portal, a window, a passage you can enter or (almost) touch, and a mirror, a reflection, a prism that gives you back only what you project onto it." Or as Bergman himself admitted: "I am caught in a conflict — a conflict between my need to transmit a complicated situation through visual images and my desire for absolute clarity."

Also read — (Revisiting The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet) — Ingmar Bergman's 1957 masterpiece about God's eternal silence)

Persona is an exquisitely crafted meditation on the nature of identity and the medium of cinema. It's a film which not only showcases Bergman's technical mastery of the medium but also reveals his relentless quest for truthful cinematic expression.

As part of the global celebrations of the 100th birth anniversary of legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman this year, the Swedish Consulate will be hosting special screenings of some of his most iconic films at the 20th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. In an effort to reinvigorate public discourse of his work, Firstpost will be revisiting few of these films.

Updated Date: Oct 31, 2018 16:03 PM