Bergman’s masterpiece holds the incredible feat of being considered one of if not the best film ever made. Furthermore, if L’Avventura was one of my favorite films from this class, Persona is my favorite.
There are many factors that go into Persona being a masterpiece. From the famous opening sequence that is an editor’s paradise (in fact often cited as an example of the best edits in film history) to iconic shots and frames with light and texture. The way the film molds the two actresses with the camera utilizing their shadows and poses. And incredible dialogues all under the masterful direction and brilliant performances.
On the surface, the film is obviously concerned with the recurring symbolism of duality. There is duality within the two characters: their on-the-surface dispositions, to their deeper nature and persona. There is also duality in the interpretation that the two women may be one, and just representations of two extreme characters of one woman. However, this is just one of the many interpretations that could be extracted from Persona.
The intelligent blend of surrealism and realism is also a topic to discuss. The film constantly makes you wonder which scenes really occurred and which ones are mere imaginations. The motives are never really clear, and the actions are subjects to interpretation. The film’s use of surrealism vs realism keeps the audience at bay and imprisons them to be engaged with the material. The possibility of vast film discussions regarding the events of the movie is one of its most attractive qualities.
Another heavy theme that can be found in the movie is the reversal in roles. Who is the nurse and who is the patient? Who is the one that is “mad”? Who is actually treating who? In the beginning, Alma, with her profession, is clearly the caretaker, but once in the summer home she becomes increasingly more dependent of Elisabeth, and starts to show insane tendencies and lunacy. Alma becomes the more manic one in need of help, while Elisabeth despite her forced muteness still applied, is the more sane of the two. The gradual and subtle role reversals delivers in raw power of the characters. This of course is aided by the wonderful talents, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann.
But perhaps, the least talked about theme of the movie, but is my favorite (because I pride myself in completely figuring it out on my own) is it’s study on motherhood. Both characters exhibited insanity that throughout the movie is carefully revealed as quite connected to their maternal roles. Their mental illnesses can be perceived as unconsciously rooting from their failure as mothers, and how that messes with their personas and perceived ideas of themselves. The opening shot of the sickly boy who reaches out to a white screen which turned out to be the character’s faces, can be argued as the aborted baby that is reaching out to its mother that killed him. This opening can be one of the mental horrors that cloud Alma’s mind that induces her to be manic.
Overall, Persona is a film that could be interpreted in many ways, and I find that it could be viewed in varying voices and lenses which make it a timeless cinematic triumph.