NAMED AFTER THE LATIN WORD FOR MASKS WORN BY ACTORS IN ANTIQUITY, Ingmar Bergman's Persona deals with the guises people create to satisfy the demands of their environment. The term contrasts directly with "anima" which pertains to the inner personality or soul.
Persona's two protagonists embody these two opposing concepts. Elisabet is a stage actress who one day ceases to speak, not due to any physical or mental illness, but out of sheer willpower. Alma is her carer, a young nurse who candidly shares not only thoughts and emotions, but even scandalous secrets.
The two women spend time at a seaside cottage, in utter silence, save for Alma's carefree intimations. Real events blur with what could be interpreted as dream sequences, in metaphorically-rich scenes of two identities oscillating between similarity and distinction. At the outset, Elisabet's façade renders her very different to Alma, but their interface, as well as clues throughout the film, erode the actress' guise, revealing an inner world that mirrors and melds with that of her companion.
Persona has been widely analyzed and critiqued, with Bosley Crowther's New York Times review describing it as "a veritable poem of two feminine spirits exchanging their longings, repressions, and mental woes against a background of natural beauty." Details have also been examined, as in Thomas Elsaesser's piece for Criterion, which notes the link Bergman makes between hands and the face, that "are everywhere in Persona: hands reaching out to caress or slap faces, or covering their own faces; even the photo of the Warsaw ghetto boy with his hands raised is scrutinized by the camera for hands and faces."
I was particularly fascinated by Persona's visual composition of juxtaposed profiles and superimposed faces, that even outside of their symbolism result in meticulous, elegant arrangements. And in light of shedding guises, I must also express my trivial appreciation for the film's sartorial aspect. Turtle necks, boater hats and that gorgeous chain link bangle. Not bad distractions through 84 minutes of psychological drama.
Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman in Persona, 1966. Directed by Ingmar Bergman.