#3 — Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
I expend a lot syllables in these pieces considering how individual films fit in with the shifting trends of the cinematic era. Maybe they connect to the French New Wave, as a representative example of it or a film that bears its mighty influence. Or maybe a film forecasts the dark, intense revolution of American moviemaking on the horizon. And then there are those efforts that stand wholly apart from any such contextualization, that are astonishing entirely on their own terms, set against any era, any place, certainly any trend. That’s where the work of Ingmar Bergman usually lands for me. I’m know loads of stirring theses have been spun out of the Swedish master’s influence and shifting place on the cinematic firmament, but I always feel very detached from all that scholarship while watching his films. Maybe more than any other major filmmaker, Bergman feels apart from everyone else–not always better, but always distinctly separate–as if he were operating with completely different rules, norms and even techniques. His films bear a classical structure from an alternate version of film history, where experimentalism and narrative evolved with hands tightly clasped. And no film of his exposes that evaluative truth quite as beautifully and convincingly as Persona.
The movie progresses by feel more than an adherence to commonplace rigors of movie storytelling, but there is a recognizably sketch of a plot. A nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson, extraordinary) is dispatched to provide care to an ailing stage actress (Liv Ullmann). They retreat to a remote cottage by the sea, and the process of healing begins. More interesting, the process of shifting identity begins. Alma grows obsessed with the actress, beginning to adopt her history, her life. As this happens, Bergman bends the film’s narrative to its breaking point and sometimes beyond it, almost literally. The director probes in on the primary pair, allowing the fabric of the film’s reality to become as pliable as the understanding of existence held individually and collectively by the nurse and actress. The black-and-white cinematography by the incredible Sven Nykvist is stark, beautiful and equally prone to shifting, sometime as fast as the flick of a frame. Under Bergman’s watchful, inquisitive eye, the film pushes into realms of unfathomable creativity.
Bergman knew he had reached new levels. He wrote the film while recovering from his own ailment, and a profound sense of human fragility pervades the film. It is specifically reflected in the way the film threatens to splinter apart, the way the very sanity and mental sanctity of the characters feels increasingly poised to shred away, like aged paint on a weather-beaten wall. Bergman wrote of the freedom he felt when working on the film, the openness he had to exploring possibilities with little concern for how it would be received, by the studios, by the audience, by his peers. He exhibited an innate sense for how film worked, and the ways its inner workings could be disassembled and strewn across the screen, almost haphazardly, to strangely create a cleaner, clearer truth. It has the potency of an artist feeding on his own mind, delightedly subverting his safest instincts in favor of excavating the hidden wonders of his wanderlust creative soul.