First Time Watch: Persona (1967)

By Christian DiMartino

Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is about as brilliantly hypnotic as films get. Here is a film that, within five minutes, displays strange, random, yet beautiful and unique imagery that will forever be etched in your brain. Said imagery will also make you want to see the film again as soon as possible.

Many have probably attempted to make this sort of film, and many have probably failed, in that they attempted to make something “artistic.” Persona is indeed artistic, but because Bergman is a true artist. Here is a film with supreme artistic confidence that shoots for the sky, and never misses its mark. It’s a film that holds you under its fascinating spell from beginning to end.

Bibi Andersson delivers marvelous work here as Alma, a nurse tasked with treating Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), a famous actress who, while in the middle of a performance, fell silent, and hasn’t spoken since. Alma takes Elisabet to a beach house for treatment, and there the two form a bond. Alma pretty much spills out her entire life story to Elisabet, telling her of orgies, sexual encounters, an abortion, and so on, but Alma doesn’t stop because she believes Elisabet to be a wonderful listener and a kind soul. Yet the longer these two stay at the house, the more the tensions start to rise. Alma finds an unfortunate letter, and is soon driven a little nuts by Elisabet’s uncontrollable silence, and…

Is any of this real? Andersson, Ullmann and Bergman do a marvelous job of convincing you it does, but Bergman also always keeps us on our toes. Take, for example, those opening minutes I mentioned before. We see what appears to be the evolution of a camera and/or filmmaking- literally, it’s there. It is then followed by images of a nail going through a man’s hand, followed by a boy, tossing and turning in his before, before getting up, staring at a wall, which also happens to be shared with a woman’s face. All of this occurs before the film actually begins. Yet even as the film is going, there are times when the camera deliberately messes up, and we are taken back to said imagery. There are even shots of camera men filming.

This is meant to give off the impression that this is, clearly, an illusion. An illusion of what, though, exactly? It will all seem rather random until the film is finished, though even then it still might come across as rather random. Yet the film is, essentially, a woman coming to terms with herself. That is all I can really say because it is more of something you should just experience for yourself, but with this angle, I have to say that I have never quite seen a study of the human psyche done in such a creative way. There is no denying my lack of knowledge toward’s Bergman’s work- besides this one, the only one I have seen is the great Wild Strawberries. A good chunk of these films are at my disposal now, so it appears I do not have a choice. Yet even with my lack of knowledge, I can tell you that the man was clearly a master.

Here, he is a master of storytelling, above all else. It is incredible just how much is at play, and achieved, in under 90 minutes. Sometimes, people make films of ambiguity and chances are they’ll forever remain ambiguous due to poor writing. Not here. Bergman lays out all of his pieces, and he leaves them for us to put together. He is also a master of craftsmanship in itself. There are many shots here that, while being black and white, are breathtaking and unforgettable.

All of this comes together beautifully because of the artistry, and because of the masterclass of acting. Andersson is the real star here, owning just about every scene she’s in. That doesn’t mean Ullmann should be counted out though. Her performance is pretty much silent, but the expressions on her face speak volumes. Persona is a haunting and unforgettable experience in which even the most silent of moments leave a thunderous impact, like the film itself. I can’t wait to go back.

Now Streaming on HBO Max

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