It’s difficult for any review to do justice to Igmar Bergman’s most
personal and mind blowing film, “Persona.” It is quite simply one of the most
sublime, profound, and poetic films in the history of cinema.
It will be shown on Friday, Sep 7th at 4:15pm, Saturday, September 8th at
3:30pm, and Wednesday, Sep 12th at 6:15pm at the Gene Siskel Center as part of
the Bergman 100 series. The center’s brochure described the series as “a
centenary celebration of the Swedish director who for many filmgoers epitomized
the cinema's potential as a serious art form.” It will be shown in Swedish with
Persona was originally released in 1966 in Europe and in 1967 in America. It
opened to almost tremendous, nearly universal critical acclaim. For many years,
the film was routinely listed as one of the 10 greatest films ever made in all
the most important film polls including the prestigious Sight and Sound poll.
When I was asked to do a list/ ranking of the greatest films ever by the One
Sentence Review website, I put Persona down as the second greatest film ever
after A Touch of Evil (the director’s cut). See:
Through the early ‘70s, a majority of international film critics considered
Bergman to be a supreme film maker on the same level or greater than Hitchcock
and/or Welles. Bergman was championed by the auteur critics who judged works in
comparison to other works by the same author/creator.
But then a huge paradigm shift occurred in film study. By the mid ‘70s,many critics had switched to genre criticism which examines films in relation to other films of the same type.
Bergman’s works don’t really fit well into any traditional Hollywood genres
(although most of his film are art films), so there was a huge backlash against
him which he still has not fully recovered from. Many of the newer critics
considered Bergman’s works to be too literary, abstract, stagy, and
self-indulgent. As a consequence Bergman’s work has been undervalued in the last
few decades. But many later major directors such as Robert Altman, David Lynch,
Steven Cederberg, David Fincher, Lars Von Trier, and Woody Allen continued to
draw from his work long after his death. Clearly, Lasse Hailstorm’s video for
Abba’s 1977 hit “Knowing Me, Knowing You” is a complete homage to Persona, and
it uses the exact same type of camera angles. See:
“Persona” opens with an extraordinary and jarring montage which looks like it
could’ve come from a French new wave. Bergman shows us a spider, dripping blood
and a crucified Christ figure. All the images can be tied to the themes in the
film, but none of them has only one all encompassing meaning or application. The
spider image for instance may be foreshadowing Elizabet’s life sucking behavior
and the Christ image can be tied to the innocent Alma’s ennobling suffering for
While making the film, Bergman was heavily influenced by both psychoanalysis and
the popular ‘60s literary philosophy, deconstruction, which was gaining
attention when the film was being made. “Persona” deconstructs itself when we
see actual film reels moving, reminding us of the film’s artificial
construction. Here, Bergman is like a great magician showing us how his tricks
The main story is heavily symbolic and at times it’s hard to decide
what is literally happening in the film.
Alma, an apparently innocent and inexperienced nurse (Bibi Andersson) is ordered to care for a mysterious and Machiavellian actress
named Elizabet (Liv Ulmann).
Elizabet stopped talking completely after she ran off stage during her starring
performance in “Elektra” which is about a daughter who hates
her mother and loves her father too much (it was the template for the Daredevil
character with the same name). The play may have traumatized her into silence by
reminding her of her of her own bad parenting.
Elizabet bonds with Alma, when Alma tells a story about how she and
a strange woman spontaneously slept with two young strangers on the beach. Alma
got pregnant. She was traumatized by the aftermath of the experience and this
shows Elizabet they have more in common than she thought.
The former Chicago Tribune critic, Michael Wilmington wrote a terrific essay
which captures the scene’s erotic appeal, and it appears in the book, The X
After awhile it becomes clear that the engaged Alma is falling for Elizabet.
It’s debatable whether the attraction is merely psychological or physical as
well. It is also unclear (at least initially) whether the affection is mutual.
The film features two of the greatest performances by two of the finest film
actresses. Bibi Andersson did many films with Bergman (she was mind bending-ly
terrific in both The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries) and she also worked
with other top rank film makers such as John Huston (The Kremlin Letter) and
Robert Altman (Quintet).
Liv Ulmann is a terrific actress and also a skillful director. She won a Golden
Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture for the film The Emigrants (1971),
and has been nominated for another four. In 2000, she was nominated for the
Palme d'Or for her second directorial feature film, Faithless, one of the best
films of that year.
The script for “Persona” was specially written to capitalize on the likeness of
the two magnificent lead actresses. Bergman often shot them at an angle which
made them indistinguishable from one another. As they get closer all the
boundaries between them come down. In the film’s most astonishing shot, their
images actually fuse, and they either physically or mentally become one person.
Whether you love or hate Bergman, every serious cinema aficionado should see the
film at least once. It’s probably best to see it first in the big screen, but
the film gains power by seeing it over and over on DVD. I would recommend that
serious film buffs see it on the big screen for the first time and then they
should buy it to savor its brilliance over and over.
“Persona” and many of Bergman’s other films try to accomplish the same thing as
the world’s great religions. It struggles to reach the unknowable, the abstract
and the transcendent. It comes closer to succeeding as any other film I have