Persona, by Ingmar Bergman (1966)

Persona (1966), the movie

Taking advantage of a few weeks of summer and vacation, I’ve felt like rewatching some of the movies that I have the best memories of after many years since I last saw them. One of them, Persona, the film by Ingmar Bergman starring Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, I watched, according to FilmAffinity, in 2006, when I was 19, and in a rather poor and dark image quality, if I remember correctly. I wouldn’t even rule out the possibility that it was a VHS copy (downloaded from eMule), so even if only for the HD quality of the version on Prime Video (also available on Filmin), it’s worth watching Persona again in a quality that does it more justice.

From my memory, all I can say is that it left me shattered. My fear was, now that I’m 36 years old, that this feeling might have more to do with my age and the spirit that surrounds you in university rather than with a storytelling approach that truly devastates you. And boy, does it devastate you! But in such a delicate and intimate way that it’s a pleasure to be in a work that is simultaneously so disturbing. Maybe it’s also because over time, I have become a bit more like the person I was back then, when I spent several days pondering the distance between being and appearing. I used to wonder how much of me was Elisabet, or that inner self that questions everything from its way of facing reality and surroundings, the one that exists when you have to rethink what you’ve done and said, and how much of me was Alma, that outer appearance that displays the reactions society expects from her.

I don’t think it’s necessary to delve into the plot of Persona, but if you’ve reached this point without knowing this film, let me tell you that the plot itself doesn’t have much more: Elisabet, a successful actress, becomes unable to speak during the final act of the play Elektra, and after several days of silence, she is admitted to a hospital for observation. When the doctor sees that she has no illness, she invites her, along with the nurse Alma, to spend as much time as she needs at her summer house in Fårö, where both of them will engage in what one should do during vacations. From there, we witness everything that Bergman was at the time: existentialism and the silence of God, loneliness, lack of communication, along with less common themes like motherhood (already explored in Through a Glass Darkly) and the obligations we often feel forced into despite them not being mandatory, because they are part of the moral norms of our times.

Interpretations and Explanation of Persona, Ingmar Bergman’s Most Enigmatic Film

The faces of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson in Persona

Despite the fact that, in terms of enigma, Ingmar Bergman’s filmography also reserves a special place for Fanny & Alexander, in that case, the enigmatic quality comes more from the way some intricacies are portrayed, using dreams, ghosts, as well as traumas and fears. However, with Persona, when you finish watching the film, you are left with many unanswered questions. Many questions for which numerous answers have been written and even more studies have been conducted, associating its creation and development with the illness that Ingmar Bergman suffered due to the stress and anxiety caused by his incessant work (and the release of That Women, which was a complete failure in his career). Nothing I say here is more reliable than what has already been written, but if cinema, literature, and even music are good for something, it’s to make us feel and think differently, adding to the discussions and conversations about them. And in this sense, Persona is a complete experience, and that’s even though it lasts less than an hour and a half.

While the most widely spread interpretation is that Persona is based on Carl Jung’s theory of the persona, I’d rather steer clear of anything related to psychoanalysis or analytical psychology (but I’m all in for behavioral psychology). This interpretation, to a large extent, comes from the title of the film, as Persona reflects the Latin word that means “mask”. From the film itself, without attempting to delve further into what’s shown, we can understand that we’re dealing with a woman who has it all but is unhappy because everything has been imposed upon her, especially motherhood, assumed because “it was expected of her”. From this, one might think she’s suffering from depression or something similar. However, given the role of the nurse, a talkative woman who trusts others and can’t help but show herself as cheerful and more extroverted, we can talk about the figure that the title represents, the mask. Those two faces that come together to form something new and similar, how that mask serves to confront some daily realities, while the other part questions everything the former has done, when there’s a need to be somewhat false until we feel secure in an environment, to answer things we don’t think or wish when questioned or forced into something we don’t want, or to follow others to avoid the complications of conflict. And how all this is truly related to anxiety, to existence itself. With the distance that exists between being and appearing in a world that isn’t real and is also finite, because often what you feel about your experiences doesn’t carry that weight for anyone else, and isn’t as important. They’re just situations that linger in memory, even less so in the memory of more than one person.

But returning to the explanation of Persona, here Bergman’s demons become those of the two protagonists, with those dreamlike scenes where they are shown as one, or where there’s even the possibility of romance, but where nothing is made explicit, not even the possibility that both women are actually the same person. However, for me, this is the most plausible option, because both characters are complementary, yet entirely different at the same time, with behavior that runs in parallel, clashing when the outward expression of one part is questioned by the other, due to its excessive naivety and the need to express what it thinks all the time, even if it’s trying to please. Hence, both of them know everything about each other, and one’s husband mistakes the other for her and has sex with her, which, together with the shots that unite the faces of the protagonists, solidifies the idea that they are the same, as the man is not blind. In any case, within the film itself, there’s also a reflection on cinema itself, as Amanda Luna points out in her analysis of Persona as the cinema that questions its own face.

Persona, One of the Best Examples of Bartleby Cinema (and Literature)

Persona and The Man Who Sleeps

Because Bergman was a director who used cinema, theater, and literature as an outlet, to release his demons so that they would cease to be a part of him, Persona is clearly Bartleby Cinema, or in its literary version (Persona has been published as a book by Spanish Nórdica publishing), Bartleby Literature. As described by Vilas-Matas to define writers who renounced further writing, but which I directly associate with this type of story where a character decides to stop doing something without it making sense at first glance, and which is related here to stopping living, to some extent, or at least to living in the conventional way. But even then, there doesn’t seem to be a clear reason, though it can be questioned or given reasons. Because not all of us are prepared to be with others, to accept who we are, or even to know who we are. We don’t even know how to live a life. That’s why there’s a difference between being and being obliged to appear. Like those people who decide to get married at 30, graduate at 23, or have children a year after marriage, just taking it 100 steps further. When you’re aware of that difference or distance between your obligation to work to live and your need to not have to work or be around people, for instance, or to have a family, or simply to fulfill needs beyond the basic ones.

Thus, Bartleby stories show that, in reality, life is all about appearing, not so much as an exercise in falsehood or a need to pretend, but rather as a way out of a series of obligations that don’t mean anything or don’t necessarily have to mean anything in life, but from which we can’t escape. The only way out is through silence (as in Persona), isolation (as in The Man Who Sleeps) or a mix that translates into apathy (as in Bartleby, the Scrivener). And all those options are impossible, ask Nietzsche’s or Zarathustra’s fans. But well, the important thing is that we never go that far. Because it’s true that at some point, we’ve all thought about doing something similar to the protagonist, even if it was just for a second. Our lives are predetermined by certain processes and social factors. We walk a path that others have walked before us, but not everyone has goals, and what good is a path without a destination? That’s when you discover that indifference mentioned in all the aforementioned stories, the one that would allow you to act like the protagonist of any of them, except your common sense and reality prevent you, along with the need for money, probably.

Also, because life has other things that make us happy. In the development of a person, which is you, living in a matter of personal expectations and fulfilling the expectations of others. I, who feel much closer to Domenico Cantoni, to that observant gaze that doesn’t seem to know what to think but conveys everything that’s often felt in work and other aspects of life, between the subtlest sadness and the most innocent or naive happiness. Between the lack of initiative due to a lack of ambition and our ability to be social and interact with others while discovering what we want to be, what we are, and what our real needs are… While also not forgetting that one day we’re going to die and it’s all over. That’s why we have to choose and do something, but not what capitalism tells us, with its pro-individualism message and its tendency to turn any passion into a form of monetization. And this text is an example, because it’s highly likely that nobody will read it, but for me, it serves to avoid burning out, just like the frames in Persona are burnt at a certain point.

Set of burnt frames from Persona (from minute 44 and 28 seconds to minute 44 and 41 seconds of runtime)

I watched, liked and rated Persona ★★★★★ on Tuesday May 2, 2006

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