The Inner Workings of Silence

Persona (d. Ingmar Bergman, 1966)

Persona by Ingmar Bergman is certainly a movie to say the least. Watching it, I felt multiple emotions (mainly disturbed), but considering how the film is classified on the internet as a “psychological drama”, I feel like that was precisely the point. Persona has a horrifying opening scene that has bizarre elements such as internal organs, an old film projector cracking, a cartoonish vampire, and even an erect penis, followed by a bizarre sequence of a child awakening from sleep and reaching out to an enormous screen showing the two protagonists of the film. This opening scene is only amplified in its unnerving and terrifying nature by a film score that seems to exist to do just that.

In fact, the score is precisely what makes Persona a disturbing experience. The film plays with sound to amplify the conflicts of its plot and the style of its directing to make a weird and unnerving experience. Even the smallest thing such as the central two characters being comforting towards each other are treated in an unnatural way and even flashed back to at the end of the film with the help of the ominous score.

The score existing to be as unnerving as it is is precisely what makes the film even more nerve-wracking – the story is about a woman named Elisabet who randomly took a vow of silence and her nurse named Alma who accompanies her to a cottage to help her recuperate. It is a simple premise, and yet the score compliments the element of insanity that one might naturally encounter when having nothing but another human being with you that refuses to talk and only you and your thoughts to accompany you for hours on end.

When the film was introduced to us in class, the main thing told to us was that the film “is about two women talking to each other”. And honestly, while that does sum up the film’s basic premise, it seems to gradually devolve from two women talking to each other to another slowly losing her mind as she appears to become the other. This is very clear near the end of the film, where Elisabet’s husband arrives and sees Alma as his wife, seemingly oblivious to Alma claiming otherwise. At the same time, Alma herself also seems to accept slowly becoming Elisabet, as she even sleeps with her husband.

It is actually at the exact ending sequence of the film where Alma fully realizing she has become Elisabet is shown. After a lengthy monologue shown from Elisabet’s perspective where Alma deduces Elisabet’s life that led to her forced vow of silence, the film repeats it again, this time from Alma’s perspective. Immediately after, Alma wounds herself, has Elisabet drink her blood, reaffirms her identity as herself before forcing Elisabet to say the word ‘nothing’ and running away from the cottage she spent her last few days in, followed by a film crew. In this scene, I think it really showed that while Alma may believe that she has not turned into Elisabet, the mere fact that she attempts to hide Elisabet and run away with a camera crew capturing her shows otherwise. She may try to escape it all she wants, but she has effectively turned herself into Elisabet. And that, I think, is the terrifying impact of the film – how ‘nothing’ (Elisabet and her vow of silence) can eventually result into ‘something’ (Alma turning into Elisabet), despite ‘something’ being unwilling to do so.

Ultimately, Persona is a weird, disturbing, and unnerving film, and yet it is memorable enough to serve as a unique look into one’s psyche.

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