At the mere mention of how Ingmar Bergman’s Persona would be a more challenging watch than Godard’s Une Femme est Une Femme, one would assume how it would be a complete deep dive into art cinema. Indeed, the manner in which the narrative of Persona was relayed was quite bizarre. Opening shots seemingly consisted of random and cryptic visuals was unnerving, especially given the context that the film would simply focus on two women. Yet, as the film progresses, one recognizes the inherent genius that Bergman is. These seemingly random shots are a reflection of the events of the film—an individual’s slow descent into disillusionment over the loss of identity.
The audience is introduced to Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), a well-known actress who has suddenly decided to stop speaking and currently resides in a hospital. In order to help her regain her voice, Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson) is assigned to be her caretaker. The first few minutes of the film seem light as Elisabet and Alma begin to live together in the hospital director’s summer house near the sea. Alma divulges truths to Elisabet that she herself has not fully understood and shared to those closest to her. From this seemingly innocuous beginning of a friendship, the film descends into chaos.
Tasked to deliver Elisabet’s letters, Alma decides to read through one meant for the hospital director. This sparks a change in Alma as she feels betrayed and used due to how Elisabet takes her suffering lightly and finds amusement in it. This further escalates due to Elisabet’s commitment to silence leaving no response at all to Alma’s vitriol.
Unable to reconcile her rage and need for company, Alma shifts violently from begging Elisabet to forgive her and threatening to kill her. From here on, the manner in which the film is shot are convoluted and messy—aptly reflecting the disillusionment that has come upon Alma. Scenes being abruptly interrupted by unrelated footage or cutting to a new scene without context are proof of this. Little by little, the lines between what distinguish Alma and Elisabet blur. First through their similar clothing then gradually turning into scenes where the audience is unable to tell who is who. The scene sure to be engraved in the minds of the audience is the one nearest the ending, where Alma and Elisabet repeat the same lines. This heralds the complete blurring of the two identities, leaving the audience questioning whose story is being told through the lines. As if to confirm this, the scene ends with a merging of the faces of Elisabet and Alma respectively. Only at this point does the viewer realize how unsettling both Elisabet and Alma look alike.
Beautifully shot and evocative, Persona rightfully claims its reputation as an art film classic. The audience is given a surreal experience and is placed as a spectator to this tragic and disturbing story of how a woman slowly descends into madness. Bergman is able to masterfully give form to what it feels to lose one’s identity and does it in a manner that is hauntingly beautiful.